Thursday, May 2, 2013


This week a list of new schools was announced by the Alberta government, possibly as a distraction from the PC's complete bungling of the Remand Centre strike. The announcement was spread over several days for maximum self-promotional effect. Like a doctor who refuses to treat terminal patients, the provincial government is there to deliver only good news, and leaves the unpopular and dismal work of school closures to the school boards.

Young families who migrated to the suburbs will be pleased, as this is where virtually all of Edmonton and Calgary's new schools will be located. Now they will only have to drive their kids a few blocks instead of halfway across the city. And likely these schools will be full when they open.

In a very short-sighted way, it makes sense to put the schools where the children live. But for those like myself concerned about the insidious effects of low-density sprawl, this is feeding the beast. People who moved to the outer ring of the city are being rewarded with brand new schools that are likely to be far more modern and well-heated than most of the older schools they will draw students from. At the same time, maintenance of the mature schools has been neglected. As a parent looking for what's best for your children, would you move to an area with a crumbling school and declining enrollment at risk of being closed, or would you choose a brand new modern school that will be there long after your children graduate? The incentives are currently stacked towards moving families ever outward from the city.

Thinking it through a bit more, what happens when the outward growth hits the city limits? Edmonton is almost there now. What happens is the population jumps over to adjacent communities on the other side of the border. As the population leaves the city, tax revenues are lost, enrollment numbers shift from the city school board to the adjoining towns, more and more central areas stagnate or decline, and basically you get Detroit: the first North American city to shrink its population under one million. When cities stop supporting their core, then the outward migration begins. Detroit proper had a population of close to two million in the 1950's, and it is currently less than half that. In contrast, the greater Detroit area, including all the bedroom communities that people moved to over the years, has grown over the same half-century from roughly 3 to 4 million.

On the other hand we have Vancouver, which has over the past dozen or so years made a priority of supporting services and institutions that serve its central residents, including families. This means zoning more 3-bedroom condos, providing transit options, public spaces, and most importantly keeping downtown schools open. It worked. Vancouver's city population has kept pace with the growth of its surrounding towns. Vancouver's downtown schools suffer from "disgraceful overcrowding." Edmonton's inner city schools are neglected until they close, while the overcrowding happens at the edge of the city.

Like dropping a stone in a pond, Edmonton's population is rippling wider and farther from the centre, leaving an equally expanding empty spot in the middle. Families have a carrot drawing them further into the suburbs, and a stick preventing many from locating in a mature neighbourhood. If there is no awareness or will to change, the detroitification of Edmonton will continue: everyone relocate ever outward in an increasing orbit around a growing black hole, taking their vitality, diversity and money with them.

Here's a few things that would improve the situation:

1) Understand the full, long-term costs of building low-density sprawl.
And not just the demographic impacts discussed here. There are social aspects as well, most apparent in the isolation of children and seniors, or anyone without ready access to a car. Car-dependency is also turning out to be extremely bad for our physical and mental health. The actual bricks-and-mortar infrastructure is expensive and inefficient; we create more road-miles (and more potholes a few years later) per person as we sprawl. A water main in a dense neighbourhood that serves 10,000 residents costs the same as one in a suburb with 500 houses.

2) Commit to providing options for living in the core, especially for families.
This is not to force people to live in denser areas, but to allow them the choice. Provide the option of a variety of housing (smaller footprints than in the burbs, but not all apartment buildings either), easy walking and biking access to shopping and public spaces, and amenities for singles, couple and families of all ages.

3) Give the school board control over all infrastructure funding, including the building of new schools.
I would also give the city veto power over the location of new schools and maybe even school closures as well, to ensure urban planning goals are not undermined. These two levels of government need to work hand in hand, not at cross-purposes.

4) Prioritize repairs and upgrades to existing schools over building new schools.
This is an extension of the last point, and has already been acted upon by the Edmonton Public School Board. In principal at least, since currently all the board can do is prioritize maintenance and new school projects in its capital plan; the provincial government has final say on which projects go forward. Except in the largest of projects, modernizations are generally much less expensive than new buildings.

5) Recognize that a small elementary school has immense value to a neighbourhood.
Having an elementary school in the neighbourhood does more than allow children to get some exercise to and from school every day (which is very important too) - it builds a connection to the community for the child and the family. It develops citizenship and local pride in a way that commuting to a school away from home does not. Again, small schools do not have to cost more per student than big box institutions. And again, learning outcomes are usually better in small schools, regardless of the number of options offered. Reinvestment in an existing school can anchor a mature neighbourhood and promote infill and revitalization.

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