What Happens When You Move Your Urban High School Into the Suburbs?

Today we welcome guest writer and Strong Towns member, Jamie Littlefield to talk about the suburbanization of a school in her town.

What happens when a city moves their downtown high school to the outskirts of development? We’re finding out in Provo, Utah. This should give you an idea of the enormous shift:

Old, downtown high school Walk Score: 65

New, suburban high school Walk Score: 3

In 2014, residents of Provo, Utah voted to fund a rebuild of several aging schools. Initially, the school board planned on rebuilding Provo High at its current downtown site.

Following the vote, however, the board began discussing the option of a new location: the edge of development in the suburbs. A lot of discussion went into the pros and cons of such a move. But ultimately, the board decided in favor and held an April groundbreaking at the new location.

What’s happening now is a real-time experiment in suburbanizing a public facility.

Here are a few of the challenges we’ve seen so far:

1. The schools have lost a location they’ll never be able to buy back.

Land in downtown Provo is becoming increasingly expensive. The sale will help fund the new construction, but it eliminated future opportunities to have a school in the downtown area. The downtown skyscape is filled with cranes building new housing complexes - many with affordable units. But, should a new high school be needed in the future, it’s unlikely that the public would vote in favor of the expense to rebuild on the increasingly costly downtown real estate. 

Old downtown location

Old downtown location

New suburban location

New suburban location

2. We’ve reinforced a psychological and physical divide.

The new school will be built on the “westside” — a residential area that can already feel isolated from the rest of the city.

The culprit? Poor design.

The I-15 freeway splices the westside away from the rest of the city. Crossing over can require driving maneuvers that necessitated this five minute and 38 second instructional video from the Utah Department of Transportation (which, unsurprisingly parrots the usual "this highway improvement will increase vehicle capacity and therefore reduce congestion" on a road that's already 8+ lanes wide).

A highway interchange so excessive and complex they had to make a nearly 6 minute video explaining how to use it.

Yikes. Soothing music and voice-over aside, those are some tricky moves just to drive from the west side of Center St. to the east side of Center St.

If you’re driving or walking somewhere other than the primary Center Street interchange, you can expect to cross railroad tracks that are often blocked by freight trains - sometimes for over 20 minutes.

These physical design challenges have led to a psychological divide between the westside and the rest of the city.

At one meeting, a westside mom told me how happy she was about the new location. Now, she has no need to leave her side of the freeway, she said. When she has to go shopping, she’ll drive north to an adjacent city and spend her money at their Walmart. This kind of thinking is alarming, especially because creating new infrastructure on the westside is going to require new funding in the form of sales tax dollars.

Ideally, a downtown should be the heart of a city. It should inspire a sense of ownership to the extent that we all see it as “our” downtown, even if we’re not living in the middle of it. When one section of the city is isolated by poor design and used almost exclusively for housing and schools, it can create unstable sales tax systems and an unhealthy sense of exclusion within the city.

3. What’s happening in the infrastructure race will last long after the concrete cures.

The old school location wasn’t the best for walking and bicycling. But, advocates had spent years working on fixes and, recently, plans had finally been approved for major changes.

In the works:

  • The city’s first protected bicycle lanes, going in to the north of the old school location.
  • The county’s first bus rapid transit system, with a stop only blocks away from the old school location.
  • New bicycle lanes on a major arterial road, likely to be striped on the street to the east of the old school location.

All of these projects are hard-won victories for safe streets. And, while they’ll still help the area, they won’t benefit Provo High students.

A council member noted that the decision to move the school had extensive costs and construction projects that went far beyond the school board’s responsibilities.

As the new school is being rapidly constructed, the city is scrambling to design roads that accommodate new traffic. At an August joint City Council / School Board meeting, a council member noted that the decision to move the school had extensive costs and construction projects that went far beyond the school board’s responsibilities:

“Your decisions affect the city, and our decisions affect the school district…

...There were a lot of cons, in my opinion, that weren’t really thought about because they weren’t direct costs to the school district. But, you can see how the city is going to be spending millions of dollars to help with accommodating the placement of this. There were other citizens who were waiting for their projects to happen and now just got bumped back.”

Because our city doesn’t yet have an active transportation coordinator, much of the advocacy work for safe streets has been shouldered by hard-working volunteers. But, these volunteers are already tapped out, often putting in 20+ hours a week.

As the city scrambles to quickly accommodate the new demand for cars, who is left to think about creating streets safe for pedestrians and bicyclists?

What Now?

Provo is now undertaking a grand experiment in suburbanizing a public facility. There’s no going back at this point, but what design and zoning decisions could help mitigate these challenges? Please give your thoughts in the comments.

(All images from Google Maps)

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About the Author

Jamie Littlefield is the author of an upcoming book about placemaking - the wild and wonderful ways people are re-creating their cities. A former college English instructor, she has traveled the world in search of inspiring stories from innovators working to create a sense of place and connection with the cities they call home. Follow her on Twitter: @writingjamie.