New Paper: School Siting and Walkability

A full four years after graduate school, my last research paper has been accepted by the peer reviewed California Journal of Politics and Policy, published by the Institute of Governmental Studies and UC Berkeley.

Read the whole paper online for free here.

Why Does School Siting Matter?

School districts are separate planning entities from the cities and counties around them. They don’t have the luxury of long range planning, and don’t usually have maps of where they’d like to build schools in 10-20 years. Instead, they buy land at market rate once the students are already overcrowding other classrooms. This means they’re more likely to build at or beyond the edge of sprawling suburbs.

Building schools at the outskirts of a community is problematic, because guess where lots of people want to live? Right next to the newest school. Anecdotally, there are plenty of cases of new school construction coinciding with leap frog development (including several in my home town). Maybe this was just so obvious no one ever took the time to study it and prove that this was more than a casual sequence of effects. But it’s hard to influence policy with anecdotes, so with the Center for Cities and Schools, we set out to provide the clear case for coordinated school/community planning and provide the kind of citation others could use to make real change.

How Does This Work? With Pictures, Please.

Consider two elementary schools, both built in Riverside County in the early 2000s.

Lisa J. Mails Elementary, just outside Murrieta, CA. Murrieta did what it could, establishing an Urban Limit Line. This line constrains the City of Murrieta to not provide new services beyond a certain distance from the city. Originally, this was meant to keep development outside the urban area off sewer/water and on septic/well, which naturally requires lower density, and ideally means more people will live within the city. But when the school district builds a new school, it means either people will figure out how to live densely, or they already have.

Compare that to May Range Elementary in Perris, CA. Tucked inside the Urban Limit Line, in a neighborhood, across a major road from green and open space.

How Does One Measure This?

Walkability! In this instance, walkability is represented by intersection density, or number of intersections per square mile. This is quantitative substitution for a very qualitative feeling, but widely accepted by planners and policymakers, alike.

Lets get our bearings on what makes for good/bad/mediocre walkability with these example intersection densities.

So How Is California Doing?

Honestly, we’re doing moderately ok. We selected six counties with a lot of suburban growth in the 2000s, and measured the intersection densities for their new public schools that opened in that time. Some were real bad, and some were great, but most were built in neighborhoods with intersection densities around 190-220 per square mile. That’s no North Beach, but it’s also better than the Richmond District.

The same schools broken out by county. Looking good, San Joaquin!

Wow, That’s Very Exciting.

Right? I know, “We’re actually not so bad” isn’t the most exciting headline, but it’s a better place to live, and it means people are doing remarkably well with what they have. There’s more to be studied and more policy to be implemented. And now it’ll have a slightly larger corpus of research to draw upon.