Should the General Public Expect Their Government to Engage them When Designing Schools in Their Community?
How do Haligonians want their provincial government to approach the task of building a new school in their community? Should the community be consulted or should they accept whatever template-derived school the province and its contractors decide to build? What does the precedent set with Le Marchant-St. Thomas (LMST) mean for other communities in Halifax with respect to public consultation and design? Does it matter?
Clearly it matters just as it’s imperative that those paying for the school—namely the taxpaying public—be formally a part of a consultation process which provide them with a voice.
Through coordinated, collaborative planning, school districts, provincial and local governments, and community residents must be able to produce site designs that advance livability goals supported by Haligonians; vibrant communities, good schools, and active transportation choices.
Well-coordinated school facility planning and comprehensive community planning increases the likelihood that taxpayer dollars will be used efficiently; that school facility and community planning will support, rather than work against, each other; and that any community facility that is a part of the school can be jointly funded; developed, maintained, and used.
In progressive cities across the globe, it's widely accepted that a key element of livable communities is the ability to safely walk, bike, and use transit to reach key destinations. A well-sited school gives children and their parents precisely these transportation choices. This is good for children and the community for several reasons: (1) greater pedestrian accessibility reinforces schools as community focal points; (2) reducing the number of cars on the road decreases traffic congestion and air pollution; (3) opportunities for daily exercise encourage children to develop healthy lifestyles; and (4) children acquire life skills and habits that incorporate a variety of transportation options.
LMST Site Plans Became More Auto-Oriented With Each Refinement
The most recent site plans unveiled to the public thus far for Le Marchant-St. Thomas have been drawn up without broad community input or consultation. Unfortunately, these site plans reflect an disregard for the aforementioned benefits of livable, pedestrian oriented communities.
The first publicly available plan presented to an audience of less than three dozen people on December 15, 2015—featured a large, front-loaded parking lot which physically cut the school off from hundreds of children arriving by foot each morning.
When the question was asked during the 15-December presentation, where the government was in the process of designing the school, the project facilitator stated that the purpose of the meeting was to present final plans and not solicit input. As a result, people who might ordinarily voice concern remained silent.
After the 15-December presentation, provincial contractors revised the site plan further and actually made the overall plan actually worse in two ways:
- The previously proposed parking lot became a large kiss-and-ride loop that features a large island of unusable land at its center. A kiss and ride loop works directly against livability as previously described in that it reduces pedestrian accessibility by encouraging larger amounts of vehicular traffic to mix with the hundreds of people arriving / departing by foot and bike. Currently, over 70% of children walk to and from school each day. Policy-makers should be working to increase rather than decrease that percentage over time.
- Rather than placing parking along the side and rear of the new school where it belongs in walkable neighborhood, the most recent plan calls for the destruction of a long-standing children’s playground across the street from the school site so that the land can be used for a parking lot.
Like the plans presented on 15-December, these most recent modifications were made without broad public input. Equally relevant here, is the fact that the revised plans were only presented to a small group of property owners and members of a school committee.
Both the relatively closed nature of decisions relating to the site design and the nature of the plans themselves are of concern to every member of the public who has learned about what has transpired.
It’s widely accepted in the planning and design profession that open and inclusive public involvement build trust and fosters design excellence relevant to pedestrian-oriented development. The absence of such a process for Le Marchant-St. Thomas has unnecessarily lengthened the time by which a positive outcome could be reached and has generated unnecessary concern within the community.
What Might Have Been Done
When considering what’s gone so very wrong with the LMST project, it’s helpful to understand what the provincial government’s project team might have done from the outset then compare to what was actually done.
To facilitate this process from the outset the project team might have:
- Identified a stakeholder involvement plan which enables the project team to assure that the broad set of viewpoints required for a holistic planning process are engaged from the beginning and throughout the project in a manner commensurate with their role.
- Grasped that everyone in the catchment area are stakeholders as are the teachers.
- Leveraged a public involvement specialist who is directed by the stakeholder analysis to employ a variety of methods to connect with the public.
- Had the public involvement specialist engage the public using a variety of methods including:
- Phone calls
- Newsletter Announcements
- Neighborhood Meetings
In addition to stakeholder analysis, the project team should have known at the outset to complete an existing conditions analysis that took into account concerns such as transportation, environmental conditions and urban design. Typically, this is done in the form of what’s referred to as a SWOT analysis (i.e., Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). Normally, this would be followed by feasibility study and conceptual sketching as a lead up to actually inviting the public to participate in designing the site in a series of collaborative design sessions held over the course of a few days.
Unfortunately, the project team never put up a web page to provided the public with basic information such as a schedule outlining public involvement, milestones, and contact information. As of March 2017, the project team has made no information publicly available via the internet which is unfortunate given that the province's IT resources.
What Actually Happened with LMST?
What the provincial government’s project team did bears little resemblance to a public process. With this said, it is important to note that, the closed-nature of school design/construction is driven by provincial policy. Within HRM, the province typically builds schools in auto-dependent environments outside the city, where site design and building massing (i.e., how large a building is) have no major impact on suburban housing which sits some distance away. In other words, urban design is not considered in auto-dependent environments because everything is separated from everything else by larger distances.
Clearly that is not the case with LMST, and the design professionals/planners employed by the province might have understood this. We expect airline pilots to understand how to take off and land without incident. Many design professionals/planners instinctively understand that outreach and collaboration with the general public is the cornerstone of a successful project in a pedestrian-oriented environment. If provincial processes impede such collaboration, then the public will be negatively impacted as a result and it is the professional's responsibility to make such concerns clearly known to their provincial employers.
Consider what actually happened with LMST. Individuals familiar with the closed nature of site design discussion have provided the Civility Project with a list of activities since the outset.
- In 2013, an LMST parent organized a visioning session in an attempt to start discussion regarding the new school. No record of this meeting is available.
- Sometime in 2014, a second parent-led visioning meeting was held in the school gym. No record of the meeting is available.
- In August 2015, the local MLA organized an invite-only meeting at an constituent’s house that abuts school property. During this meeting, invitees were told that the purpose of the meeting was to determine which of three possible sites the school would be built upon: the Annex, the HRM field behind the current school, or the current school site.
It was in this invitation-only meeting that the current site was chosen. It is unclear why the MLA or members of the project team (who did not attend the meeting) believed it appropriate that the public should be excluded from providing input on such a key decision.
- On February 10, 2016 the chair of a school advisory committee collected input from some number of parents of children at the school regarding what they wanted in the school. This parental input was subsequently given to the province (i.e., Dept of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal).
- In June, 2016 there was second invite-only meeting held at school gym. Only adjacent property owners where invited. No record of this meeting has been made available to the public but those familiar with the meeting indicated that the project team unveiled a “boomerang” design that invitees strongly objected to.
There was no collaboration with the public on this design and the project team experienced a classic case of lost trust and opposition from those few people they had invited to attend the unveiling.
- A month later, in July 2016, there was a third invite-only meeting at school gym. A new design was unveiled in which parking running the entire length of the school would cut children off from playing on the adjacent HRM-owned field. An email petition was circulated among attendees voicing opposition to the plan.
On December 15, 2016, the provincial government conducted it’s first public meeting to unveil updated plans for the Le Marchant-St. Thomas school design. Outreach efforts consisted of robocalls made a few hours before the meeting to some parents who had children in the school at that time. The broader public was not informed of the meeting.
At the outset, the facilitator clarified that the site design was already established and that the meeting was not a collaborative public workshop. Decisions had already been made beforehand and the project team subsequently presented the design to less than three-dozen people in attendance. This particular site design featured the large surface parking lot that is incompatible with the pedestrian-oriented nature of neighborhood.
On February 1, 2017, the MLA conducted an invite-only meeting with Le Marchant street home owners to work out an agreement which involved the destruction of the children’s playground adjacent to the school annex.
On February 7, 2017, the MLA distributed modified plans to select property owners that feature a large, traffic-inducing kiss and ride loop and a new parking lot directly across the street which results in the destruction of the children’s playground.
On March 5, the Civility Project announced via Facebook that it was making tentative arrangements to host a community meeting at St. Andrews Church on March 30th. On March 7, the MLA wrote on a constituent’s Facebook feed that the project team would present “parking alternatives” in public meeting to be held in late March or early April. Two weeks have passed and there has been no further communication regarding this meeting.
As mentioned previously, there are policies that actually dictate that the process of school design / construction remain closed off from the general public. This is a policy that needs to change in walkable communities where urban design concerns are manifest. Communication and collaboration with the general public is key to achieving win-win outcomes with respect to budget, educational outcomes, and urban design.
You can learn more about how the province works with HRSB to construct a school by visiting the capital project's page for the "new-halifax-south peninsula" school. Additionally, the Halifax Regional School Board member for District 4 has taken the time to describe how school construction works more generally. Please write to your MLA requesting that this process be changed to include formal stakeholder outreach to the general public for projects in pedestrian-oriented areas.