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What Schools Mean to Communities

Posted by: Frank Sherman

Our firm has a long history of being involved in the creation of school facilities, specifically designing and constructing school buildings that meet the needs and aspirations of our clients. We have done this well for many years. Part of what makes these buildings sustainable is their ability to adapt and transform to serve the needs of the community over time.

Since we are most often involved in the creation of these buildings, we less often reflect on how important these buildings become to communities over the years. Schools knit themselves into the fabric of the community and add actual and symbolic value to the neighborhoods in which they are located. We know abstractly that the building we design serve a civic function, but we sometimes underestimate the role schools play in building strong communities.

A recent blog post by Ariel Bierbaum (HERE) on the Community Design Collaborative’ s website delves into this idea of value in the context of exploring what it means to a neighborhood and to the community when a school is closed. Her goal is to better understand what value means beyond the typical functional metrics of the building as educational infrastructure or the financial metrics of land and building value. In the process she begins to explore “the value of schools as a community space tied to its symbolic value”.

“Schools represent a public commitment to a civic or communal institution; closures symbolize disrespect and disinvestment not only in education but also in the public realm that many neighborhoods have experienced for generations.”

Although Bierbaum is focusing on the negative impacts to a community that losing a school represents, we have the ability to consider the positive impact our work can have on communities – be it the design, renovation, repurposing, or simple ongoing maintenance of these civic structures. It is in our realm of responsibility (and often our scope of work) to make good, long-term sustainable decisions to ensure that school facilities meet the present needs of the school district while providing for the future needs of the community.

As architects we have the ability to promote a larger vision of what a school building means to a community. The decisions we make to fulfill client’s needs are not incompatible with the larger goals of creating enduring civic buildings. Seen through the lens of sustainability, every immediate need we address should be mindful of the long-term value of the building as a community institution.

The constitution of the Iroquois Nations describes it this way: “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground -- the unborn of the future Nation.“

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