Recently, I went to an elementary school to work with City Planners to have students design a house to fit into a block of houses. Their task was to design a home to fit in the blank spot in the neighborhood. What a wonderful experience to see children who created homes that were different colors, shapes, and styles than those in the neighborhood they were given. They used their imagination to design tree houses, underground houses, large homes and tiny homes. Nobody told them how to fit into the character of the neighborhood. I’ve wondered what the city would look like if we as adults could imagine doing things differently. Imagine instead of a school in a neighborhood we built a community asset or a building that was home to community space which may include education space, room for early learning and other activities a community may want. Perhaps it would have a library and a place for seniors to gather. Then it wouldn’t matter if the education space was no longer needed that large as the community may want other uses to fill it. Perhaps if we built schools with community space that couldn’t be used as education space in new neighborhoods we wouldn’t need separate community halls or gathering spaces. We wouldn’t need so much land for separate buildings and more room to build homes that could sustain the community.
At a recent meeting of community members, we were discussing schools and what would happen to communities if school buildings were closed. Some suggested that the city infill activities in their neighborhoods were beginning to add preschool children and it was exciting to see. They worried if that would happen if the schools were gone. Others worried about losing a part of the history of their neighborhood and wanted to preserve the buildings. The city is investing in mature neighborhoods through neighborhood renewal to rebuild roads and sidewalks. How do we align this work with building communities? Closed buildings can have a negative impact on a community. How do we avoid that? Currently, if schools are closed and are not needed by a school board then the city has the option to purchase the building. If the city purchases the building then the taxpayers will pay twice for the building. What if there is a different way? Is the only answer demolition or extensive renovations. Could we partner with other organizations or the private sector?
I wonder if we need a new model to talk about these community assets and find ways to transition into a more collaborative, community-driven model so that communities across the city remain vibrant and strong. The question is how do we keep these community assets serving a community for years to come based on what each community desires?
School Boards say that there aren’t enough children attending the local school for it to remain viable and others suggest it is because many students choose schools outside their local community. Knowing that Edmonton is one of the youngest cities in Canada, we can anticipate that we have and are going to have a growing school-aged population. So maybe the real question is, how do we get more young families into mature neighbourhoods? City Council has requested draft amendments to our bylaws that will allow secondary suites in semi-detached and duplexes. This could potentially add more residents to these mature neighborhoods at risk. Where do local schools fit in as a way to attract folks to communities? Does it matter? Is there a better way to access the needs of a community? There are also many requests from cultural and non-profit groups for space to serve the community. Does it matter if we keep doing things the same ways they have always been done or is it more important to figure out how to serve the citizens and be good stewards of the public dollars. Can you close part of a school and transition the balance to community directed purposes?
I think we need to start these conversations in communities to discuss their needs and desires prior to any discussion about the local schools.
In order for this to happen, we will need the province, city and school boards working together. My hope is that the together we can develop a vehicle to see this collaboration truly happen. It will take all of us including the City, school boards, community members, non-profit organizations, cultural groups, faith groups and businesses working together to see positive change for communities.