schools and sustainability

January 9, 2009 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1106

Illinois is one of six states working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the US Environmental Protection Agency to develop policy on sustainable school siting. What’s that? Well, basically, for years we have been building new schools out in cornfields and letting old ones closer to where people live go to waste, or worse. This is being done through the Lt. Governor’s office, so participation is free (Ba-Dum-Dum!) and you can either attend a big symposium on the topic in Joliet on February 27 or just submit comments to

The issue is sustainability, but it is also preservation. I recently looked at an old Sanborn map of Oak Park – from the 1920s and 30s. It was amazing how much was exactly the same. Over 90% of Oak Park’s single-family homes date from before 1939 and that was evident from the map – you could still use it to identify most of the residential buildings. The exceptions were a few (surprisingly few) commercial areas and some of the 1960s apartment highrises along the railroad tracks. And the schools. This was the one resource COMPLETELY altered in the last 70 years – schools.

And no wonder. Schools are the only ones that don’t have to play by the rules. They can basically ignore local planning and zoning laws. Schools are basically foreign embassies (except I can think of several embassies that preserve and rehabilitate historic buildings) thanks to certain state laws. They have a free hand denied every other building owner. And they play that hand.

When the new middle schools were built in Oak Park a decade ago, the state facilities officials treated the local community like peasants and blithely informed them that they didn’t have to listen to anything the community said. They magnanimously said they would listen anyway but then claimed all the suggestions were too late to have any effect on the process.

In the morning I walk my daughter to a design-free school building where she huddles with the other sixth graders in a foreshortened patio a car-width away from a busy street. This used to be a generous 100-foot-plus setback when my wife went to the same school which meant both FUNCTION and DESIGN were better. The absence of architectural design in the new middle schools is unfortunate in a community whose architectural character inspires ongoing human and financial investment as well as tourism.


here is what it used to look like


I hope this initiative can lead to more sustainable planning. Jim Mann used to tell a story when he ran the National Trust’s Midwest Office office a few years back about the governor (Maryland maybe??) who realized that in the next decade he was going to build 100 new schools and tear down 100 old schools. He saw the insanity of the planning process and the incredible amount of waste of taxpayer money that meant. Now we in Illinois have a chance to end this cycle of waste.

One Response to :
schools and sustainability

  1. reneeatchej says:


    Thanks for talking about this topic. I work on school siting issues for The Center for Health, Environment and Justice. I’m particularly concerned that there are very few state and no federal laws banning building a school on or near contaminated sites. This is easier in some locations than in others. But many areas don’t even have a process on how to remediate the area when other cleaner land doesn’t exist.

    Inside the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was a small sentence that mandated the EPA to develop voluntary school siting guidelines. With six months to go before the June 2009 deadline the EPA just announced that they have designated an office and working group to develop these guidelines.

    I’m not sure if you read the USAToday articles on air pollution near our country’s schools. The articles were released in December and raised a huge response among state public officials. There are several state laws being introduced this year to strengthen and/or set state precedents on setting limitations on building schools on or near contaminated land.

    As you mentioned sustainable building and clear channels of communication between local and state (and federal) authorities is really important as our communities face new economic and environmental challenges. Even in states where there are school siting laws there is a lack of communication and new schools end up being built in contaminated areas regardless. Our children really do deserve better.

    We set up a website where anyone who is concerned about this issue can send a letter to their congressional representatives and governor sharing why this issue is important. We also have a way for people to send a letter to the editor of their local newspaper.

    We also have model school siting legislation that we developed that anyone can modify to and introduce as school district policy or state law.

    Thanks for talking about this important issue.
    Renee Blanchard
    Campaign Coordinator
    The Center For Health, Environment, and Justice.

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