Planning and Siting New Public School Facilities in California

Jeffrey M. Vincent, PhD, used his Active Living Research dissertation grant to explore how school locations affect neighborhood development and active living.

    • February 6, 2008

The Problem: Where schools are located and how they are planned can promote or inhibit local community development and active lifestyles among residents. However, urban planners do not typically collaborate with public school district officials in planning new schools or ensuring that schools are viewed as part of their communities.

What issues keep these two entities from working together? What factors most affect school sitings in urban areas? And how do school sitings affect community development and active living?

RWJF Approach: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research (ALR) program stimulates and supports research to examine environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity. Funded researchers use a transdisciplinary approach—one that encourages experts from various disciplines to collaborate on identifying environmental factors and policies that are related to physical activity.

Grantee Background: Jeffrey M. Vincent, Ph.D., is co-founder and deputy director of the Center for Cities and Schools at University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development, created specifically to address the vacuum between the worlds of city planning and education and build understanding between them.

"I was curious about how school districts decide where to put schools," he says. "There were a lot of people on the planning side saying, 'They are not building schools in the right places. Kids can't bike there, they can't walk there.'"

"The critical problem… is that there is no institutional framework that even creates a space for these planning entities to plan together. This sectoral fragmentation of policy making jurisdictions makes school facility planning logistically difficult and politically contentious." Vincent wrote in an article published in 2006 in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (25:433-437).

"The field of planning looks to roads, to environmental issues, to housing, to economic development—but the one thing that the field largely ignores that permeates all of our neighborhoods is our schools. Schools are lynchpins for communities, affecting where many people choose to live and where they do not."

The Project: From November 2005 to December 2006, Vincent used his Active Living Research dissertation grant to explore how school locations affect neighborhood development and active living. "While I was getting ready to do [my dissertation], I got a call from staff at Active Living Research about one of the issues they were interested in—which was school siting. It was an amazing coalescence. There were not a whole lot of people talking about these issues, especially four years ago."

In his study, "Planning and Siting New Public Schools in the Context of Community Development: The California Experience," Vincent conducted a statewide survey of facility planners in California public school districts to examine factors that influence the way schools are planned and where they are located. He also conducted case studies of urban school planning and siting in San Diego and Emeryville (adjacent to Oakland) in which school and city planning officials collaborated in designing and locating new schools.

His work reflects the perspectives of educators, urban planners, public health officials and environmental policy-makers, illustrating the importance of transdisciplinary research in developing new urban schools.

Results: In his survey of California school districts, Vincent found that half of all school districts and 75 percent of county offices of education are seeking more than 500 new school sites throughout the state. Of the districts seeking new school sites:

  • About one-third rarely or never meet with local government officials.
  • One-third said they do not regard their relationships with local governments as positive.
  • Forty percent said that additional coordination with local government would be "highly valuable."

In California, with escalating land prices and rapidly developing communities, school district officials often struggle to find land that is affordable. Districts have autonomy from local municipalities, and can override local land use zoning and utilize eminent domain-a stark but legal reality that can put the two planning processes in competition with one another rather than in compliment.

And, Vincent discovered, "efficient land use, walkability and neighborhood connections are not necessarily at the top of the agendas of school districts. Their responsibility is to provide a place where they have enough space—fields and rooms—to run their programs. The second [goal] is safety—they don't want a school on a fault line. In part, what we are trying to do is further educate both planners and educators on the importance of school siting choices for both school and community quality."

Vincent's case studies provide examples of how school district and local government officials in two communities are working together in making decisions about new schools. In San Diego, district and planning officials jointly decided to locate a new school in an area likely to include retail stores, housing and municipal service providers. In Emeryville, officials worked to make a new school the heart of a local redevelopment plan. Both exemplify the national "schools as centers of community" movement to create vibrant, healthy communities that benefit children, families, neighborhoods and the whole city.

"Such a vision," he writes, "necessitates… overcoming decades of distrust… and crafting a creative atmosphere that enables diverse stakeholders to come together and envision what could be."

As deputy director of the Center for Cities and Schools, Vincent strives to expand the work started in his dissertation by bringing together government officials, community-based organizations and school district staff. "What we have learned in the Bay Area and through statewide research is that there is a real desire for assistance at this level."

RWJF Perspective: Launched in 2000, Active Living Research (ALR) is a $31-million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, design of the built environment and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday lifestyles for all Americans. Over the past few years, the program has focused increasingly on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities where childhood obesity levels are highest and rising fastest.

ALR research teams are required to be transdisciplinary. ALR researchers represent more than 20 different disciplines (e.g., public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology, political science).

"In addition to building an evidence base for physical activity, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and a diverse network of active living researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.

ALR seeks to translate research findings rapidly into policy and practice change. Says Orleans: "For instance, if we find out that adding bike paths and sidewalks, or walk-to-school programs significantly increases physical activity, we want to get this information out to key decision- and policy-makers as quickly and effectively as possible, so they can start using it.

"The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that how active we are depends greatly on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity," says Orleans. "Increasing numbers of urban planners now recognize that community design is critical for population health."