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Schools: a sustainable asset

Schools aren’t just places where we learn and make friends
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New thinking about schools is putting sustainability top of the agenda, not just in the curriculum, but as central assets in urban planning and community development. Take the Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham, UK. It’s co-located with community services including a conference facility and exhibition area, job shop, housing advice service, cafe, adult college, children’s centre and creche, library, sports centre, community police base, recording studio, performance spaces and community arts programmes.

Schools aren’t just places where we learn and make friends. In marketing speak, schools provide a venue and an audience—used as connection points with health, welfare and social services. Facilities are often used at all hours, for before- and after-school care, adult learning and community meetings, electoral polling booths, and venues for fundraising.

Clever school and community facility planners are discovering there are opportunities to increase buying power by sharing facilities and saving on land, capital and running costs. Caroline Springs in Melbourne is a great example, where three primary schools share administrative areas and school facilities.

Shared facilities can aid community building, provide a focal point for community activity, improve school–community relationships, increase the accessibility of services and facilities, and even produce better outcomes for the students.

In fact, when we think about sustainable service provision in our new growth areas, schools should be some of the first facilities to go in. Shared use of facilities and staging plans should make the funding equation easier. Western Australia’s ‘Schools In Shops’ programme sets a great example of staging, with schools taking retail space in emerging town centres while the population is growing. Students and school activity add to the local critical mass and everyone can be better serviced with public transport. Meanwhile, the permanent school is under construction nearby. It sure beats a relocatable in the middle of nowhere or overloading existing neighbouring schools.

This does require some design rethinking—less fencing around schools and co-locating uses that tie in with, rather than turning their backs on, schools. In a country with low-density settlements and limited funding for social and community services and facilities, there’s something in making the best use of the venues and audiences available.