Earlier this year, I was part of an unsuccessful effort to keep my local school district from tearing down an historic structure—a 1930s-era elementary school—as part of an effort to create two square blocks of parking in my city’s core downtown. Our efforts were called “disingenuous” by school officials who wrongly assumed we were anti-school, anti-education, or anti-taxes.

No, we’re just anti-destroying the city.

Geographically, the school district is enormous. Most of the people who voted do not live in one of the city’s core neighborhoods. Advocates for the school district had few misgivings with sacrificing an historic structure for more convenient parking. Most voters experience Brainerd as a place to drive through to get to a destination. For them, there will never be too much parking; trying to save the building was merely misplaced nostalgia.

Even so, there was controversy in the district’s discernment process over proposals to convert playgrounds into parking lots. Early site drawings showed off-street parking in the existing playground areas. In the months before the vote, this parking was removed from the drawings, and a note was added indicating parking would be built, with the location to be determined at a later date. I’m not suggesting anything sinister at this point; district officials said their drawings were creating confusion, that they had not intended to put the parking in the playground, and so they removed the parking from the drawings. It just also happened to be a convenient omission from the public conversation.

Now that the district has voter approval and is moving ahead with its plans, the full extent of the damage to my city’s core neighborhoods is becoming more widely understood. While they have yet to release schematics, the list of properties they are seeking through eminent domain suggests they are going to convert multiple blocks of residential dwellings into surface parking. It’s a double tragedy in that (1) it will permanently damage these struggling neighborhoods, and (2) few who are involved with the district or as advocates for the school’s plans seem to care.

In fact, in very predictable fashion, the people promoting the off-street parking are adamantly claiming that their motivation is safety. Specifically, safety for the children.

Safety First, or Driver Convenience First?

Call me cynical. I’ve read the school district’s documentation where faculty indicated that more convenient parking was one of the “top five priorities.” I’ve been in many of these schools, and while I’m sure there are staff members who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools, the vast majority do not. These neighborhoods tend to be poor and struggle with disinvestment. While education is not a lucrative career, it is a solidly middle-class career here in Minnesota. Most middle-class people live outside these neighborhoods and drive in. It’s understandable why, come February in Minnesota, people driving to their place of employment would want their parking to be more convenient.

It’s also easy to understand why a school board and senior administration—none of whom live in these neighborhoods, all of whom drive in—would be intuitively sympathetic to the convenience argument.

As psychologists have taught us, humans tend to reach conclusions based on their intuition and then use reasoning to justify those conclusions after-the-fact. We’re going to build parking lots to increase convenience, but we’re going to justify it based on safety for children. Alright, so let’s talk safety.

The Difference Between Urban and Suburban Environments

The vision for safety that the school district espouses comes from a misapplication of suburban design standards to an urban neighborhood. In a sense, what the district is proposing to do is to convert an urban neighborhood school into as close a facsimile as possible of a suburban campus. In that environment, safety is then addressed in standard suburban ways: separating conflicting uses, increasing traffic flow, and managing points of conflict.

In terms of safety for an urban neighborhood, this approach is an absolute disaster. Let me explain why.

Separating conflicting uses means keeping kids who are walking away from traffic. The theory is that, if we keep them separated, there will be no chance of any accidents occurring. The bus lane, pickup lanes, and surface parking departure lanes are all designated and kept away from where kids will be walking. Everyone in their place.

The best thing that can happen for the safety of students: people driving through a school zone should be so terrified of hitting someone that they drive very slow and with an extreme level of caution. In other words, the exact opposite of what is being designed.

I find this approach suspect in suburban schools, but at least there the expectation is that most students will be driven in a car or bus to and from the site. For each of our neighborhood schools, the school district’s policy is to provide no busing for students living within a mile of the school. They are all expected to walk, bike or be driven by someone to school. As the school is in a poor neighborhood with a lot of working families, a high percentage of students walk, and they will be walking in every which direction. Compared to a suburban campus, walking patterns around urban schools are more random and chaotic.

That randomness conflicts directly with the second aspect of the district’s safety strategy: to increase traffic flow. Suburban schools channel personal vehicles and buses into their own designated lanes to help traffic flow more smoothly. This is accomplished by removing conflicts, by giving drivers a sense of security that potential conflict points have been managed. If we don’t expect turning cars, stopping traffic, wandering kids and the like, we feel more confident driving faster. A.k.a.: increase traffic flow.

Again, I’m not sold on this as a general concept even in a suburban setting, but in an urban neighborhood, it is an obscene level of negligence. These are random environments by their nature. Students are all over the place, like they should be in a good, urban neighborhood. Doing things that artificially speed up traffic, or give drivers a heightened sense of security, makes the environment vastly more dangerous for a child on foot.

The best thing that can happen for the safety of students is counter-intuitive for those who prioritize convenience of parking and driving: people driving through a school zone should be so terrified of hitting someone or something that they drive very slow and with an extreme level of caution. In other words, the exact opposite of what is being designed.

The third aspect of this misapplied suburban safety strategy relates to managing points of conflict: how we handle instances where children walking or biking must cross areas where buses or cars are driving. This is where we get the greatest insight as to the true motivation of the design, because designers are forced to prioritize one group over the other.

Let’s guess which one gets prioritized for safety purposes. Come February in the dead cold of winter, will the flow of traffic for parents picking up their kids, or faculty leaving the off-street parking lot, be halted so that students on foot can cross the street and get on their way? Or will students be expected to wait on the corner while those in their heated cars and on the bus are provided the opportunity to improve traffic flow?

Designers, in the name of safety, will attempt to channel kids on foot to designated locations where they will be collected and then, at intervals that don’t excessively interfere with traffic, be allowed to cross. In these situations, the design relies on everyone to follow the rules—or to put it another way, to mindlessly follow the rules, and be more obedient than attentive—and stay in their designated place.

Predictably, this creates the perfect excuse for the well-intentioned when tragedy strikes: “They weren’t following the rules.”

Not: “We should have anticipated that kids don’t always follow rules.” Not: “This is a complex and random urban neighborhood where unpredictable things happen, despite our planning and design.” Not: “We shouldn’t have given everyone a false sense of security.” None of the above.

And all of this reasoning applies merely to the roughly 75 minutes per day people are entering and exiting the school site. For the remainder of the time, and through all evenings and weekends and the three months of summer, this over-engineered design approach leaves a doughnut of desolation around each school, an inducement to drive even faster through this area where we know slower speeds are the key to safety.

Designers, in the name of safety, will attempt to channel kids on foot to designated locations where they will be collected and allowed to cross. Predictably, this creates the perfect excuse for the well-intentioned when tragedy strikes: ‘They weren’t following the rules.’

From a pure safety standpoint, imposing a suburban design on an urban school is a disaster in the making. School officials who argue that this must be done for the safety of the students do not have the proper sense of how to create a safe environment in an urban setting. For the well-being of our students, and the health of our neighborhoods, we need a different vision for how to implement the will of the voters.

Fortunately, the city council in my hometown has the capacity to stop this. At its last meeting, the Planning Commission—which I am part of— recommended a moratorium on tearing down structures for conversion to surface parking. The council has the capacity to approve this time-out at any point, without any further public notice.

Such a time out would give city officials the opportunity to meet with the school district and work out the details in a way that is respectful to the neighborhood and truly safe for students. And if common ground could not be reached, the city has the capability to act unilaterally to require an implementation strategy that doesn’t damage the neighborhood where these students live.

I don’t think it will come to that, however. School district officials are smart and our city council has some very good leadership. And despite different concepts of convenience and safety, everyone involved does seem to want what is best for the students. I’m optimistic we can find a way to have a great neighborhood school while still having a neighborhood.

Top image courtesy of U.S. Air Force