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Stopping Sprawl at the Schoolhouse Door

by Jane Holtz Kay

February 2004--If ever a small city suffers the ills of urban and educational blight it is Hartford, Connecticut's capital. The "most destitute 17 square miles in the nation's wealthiest state," said the New York Times last summer. And even on a Saturday with a convention in town, you could hear a feather fall. More parking space than place, downtown is devoid of shoppers, who have all gone to malls in the bedroom suburbs born of affluence and free-for-all-development.

Not far from downtown, however, on Hartford's South Side, one of the nation's best small colleges has joined community leaders in reaping the rewards of a seven-year-old architectural, educational, and neighborhood redevelopment project that is running the wheel of urban decay in reverse. How? By creating a neighborhood school and providing education and job training close at hand. As metropolitan areas around the country suffer from deteriorating urban schools, the project is a model.

Hartford's "Learning Corridor" project was largely the vision of Evan Dobelle, president of Trinity College, an elite academic institution that anchors Hartford's Frog Hollow area. More entrepreneur than academic, Trinity's vigorous leader convinced his board peers to launch a $175 million dollar campaign to build a "community of learning" with schools, playing fields, a job center, and other facilities surrounded by an attractive collection of places and spaces.

Launched seven years ago, the project's objective was to quell the violence and decay that threatened student recruitment and the college's ivier than ivy reputation; its means were to invest and energize the neighborhood public school to reinvigorate the 15-block "war zone" around it.

While main streets and town centers have made comebacks throughout the nation, Hartford's notion of strengthening neighborhood schools through a "Learning Corridor" was novel then. Today it remains an exemplar of how modernizing existing schools and building new school facilities can revive a neighborhood, cut crime, and attract parents and students lost in the flight to homogeneous, car-dependent outburbs. Designed by SmithEdwards, Architects, the Learning Corridor won the firm an architectural award, eliminated the town/gown no man's land in Frog Hollow, and brought new life to this inner city zone.

Today, the 16-acre project, once the polluted site of a bus garage, fills those forbidding surroundings with a collection of buildings wrapped around a courtyard. Blending the open space interior of modern architecture and the Montessori formula of arrangements to foster independent thinking and learning, the structure allows each student to go at his or her own pace in an open environment.

Bright rooms blending airy spaces and closed corners flow from each other, while bright colors and attractive child-sized furnishings animate the interior. Access to the courtyard allows for play outside. Above, the peaked roofs give the complex the sense of a child's village, while the planted inner courtyard, and the larger playing fields for active sports a stone's throw away, give the center--and the community--a sense of connection with nature and the outdoors.

The Learning Corridor may seem an island in the sea of desperate conditions of the city. And, in fact, some critics claim that such singular, private efforts deflect from the labors of agencies to strengthen existing public schools. Others rejoice that it gives options to urban parents and encourages them to avoid suburban flight, while allowing suburban communities to stop enlarging or displacing urban schools to formerly open space out ot town.

This last point is vital. For, as sure as one-room school bells once rang in small town America, new mega-schools are sprouting in the outburbs. With them comes the dispersal that helps to empty small towns and cities alike, keep kids and parents incarcerated in their cars, and create more sprawl in the cycle of development that hurts city and suburb alike.

In part, Hartford's problems, like those of Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Louisville, are linked to the construction of these new schools in suburban and exurban neighborhoods, and the deterioration of existing schools in urban ones. Big box schools, like big box stores, lure families to remote regions, far from closer, older neighborhoods. Demanding pedal-to-the-metal transportation, they resist the successful "Safe Routes to School" programs and demand the traffic-inducing road widenings that create a world where Jane and Johnny can't walk, and open space and tree-lined roads can't survive.

In recognizing the roots of the problem, Trinity College sought an effective privately-financed solution that strengthened its neighborhood school and simultaneously shored up its own future. The same principles have gained significant political momentum at the state level in such disparate places as South Carolina and Michigan.

In South Carolina, the new Republican Governor, Mark Sanford, called for the revival of "smaller, community-centered schools" earlier this year in his State of the State address, sharply criticizing "the construction of massive, isolated schools that are inaccessible to the communities they serve." In early March, the state's Representative Bill Herbkersman also took a step to stop school sprawl. Supported by the governor, he introduced a measure that would shrink acreage for new schools and cap the number of students, hence promoting walkable neighborhood schools.

Similarly, the new Michigan Democratic Governor, Jennifer Granholm, expressed concern about spending and the social consequences of new school sprawl. The state's active Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Land Use Institute, a Smart Growth advocacy group, teamed up to study how school sprawl shapes patterns of development, and to recommend measures to change the policies.

Educational and environmental factors both support these leaders, with data indicating that student performance declines and behavior problems rise as school size swells. Outside the school house walls, parents suffer from the sprawl prompted by these new big box schools. Their spread throughout the community produces countless civic ills--not the least of which is navigating the jammed roads of a modern U.S. suburb. Six car trips a day is the average demand for driving each youngster to school or sports in non-neighborhoods with non-walkable mega-schools. That's a far cry from the thirty to forty percent of students who could make it to school on foot a generation ago.

All that driving is taking a toll on the nation's health as well. The federal Center for Disease Control, concerned with obesity, has taken up the call to promote real neighborhoods where children, and their parents, can walk. Advocating traffic-calming measures, crosswalks, lights, and widened sidewalks, the CDC has embraced Safe-Routes-to-School programs throughout the country. The success is circular. Designed to create accessible routes to "ensure safer walking and biking for all ages," such programs also boost the number of walkable, neighborly towns and small cities that can actually support a corner school.

Trinity College's quest to revive its environs with a public school as centering device for a healthy urban neighborhood was an early step and national model in revealing that life-enhancing circle. At the least, Frog Hollow's skill at improving learning and securing spaces and places fit for the walker's tread has proved it is possible to release Americans from car-bound lives and landscapes. While educating its students, it can make sure their parents take the pedal off the metal and keep the young, the old, and their communities, healthier, wealthier, and wise.

Jane Holtz Kay is architecture/planning critic for The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation, Preserving New England and Lost Boston. For more on the subject see