By Ariel Bierbaum
In 2012, when the School District of Philadelphia first announced the proposed closure or reconfiguration of 44 schools, parents and students responded vehemently. News and social media were filled with coverage of the hearings. They detailed people’s concerns about student safety, access to good schools, and the breaking up of communities. Many also expressed concern about how the closed buildings would affect life in their neighborhoods.
I arrived in Philadelphia in September 2014, one year after the closure decisions. In the end, the School Reform Commission voted to shutter 24 school buildings. These vacant buildings across neighborhoods stood as a stark reminder of what was lost. But what happens next?
I came to document the ongoing story of school closings – the story that comes after the District votes, the protests quiet, and students get sent to new schools.
My goal is to understand the impacts these vacant school buildings have on their immediate neighborhoods and the ways they influence or are influenced by other citywide planning and real estate decisions. I am curious about how planners and residents reconciled the visions for revitalization and opportunity in city plans with the disinvestment in education.
I have spent the past eleven months in neighborhoods in North and South Philadelphia learning about the experience of residents living near closed schools, and their hopes and fears for future reuse of the buildings. I also have heard from city planners, developers, nonprofit leaders, and policymakers about how they are thinking about these schools in the broader landscape of neighborhood change and metropolitan development.
What’s a school’s worth?
My preliminary findings suggest that the ways people define the value of schools to neighborhoods vary, and that these competing definitions can lead to tensions in school closure decision making and the building reuse process.
First and foremost, the functional value of a school is in its role as educational infrastructure – the place kids go to learn. But, I was surprised to find that the role of schools varies across neighborhoods. In some neighborhoods, schools are key pieces of social infrastructure for parents and students. In others, they serve a broader neighborhood community, as a gathering space, resource center, or social hub.
Sometimes, the school is the only institution left in a neighborhood that over the years has seen employment centers, churches, and even public recreation centers close. School closures mean a loss of a safe community space, leaving many neighborhoods more isolated and depleted of resources.
The functional value of schools as a community space is closely tied to its symbolic value. Schools represent a public commitment to a civic or communal institution; closures symbolize disrespect and disinvestment not only in education but also in the public realm that many neighborhoods have experienced for generations. The shift in function of the buildings signals and reinforces perceptions and fears of neighborhood change, be it disinvestment and isolation in parts of North Philadelphia or increased investment and development pressures with ripple effects of cultural displacement, lack of affordability, and limited parking in South Philadelphia.
These trajectories of neighborhood change are related to the monetary value of schools. Many numbers are cited to express this value – the Office of Property Assessment assessed value, the district’s asking price, and the final sales price. None of these numbers come from a simple calculation, however, and were the subject of public and private debates by city leaders.
Ultimately, the “market” determined sales prices, which were not necessarily well-aligned with either the assessed value or asking prices. Some have argued they’re not even well-aligned with the actual value of the land. Thus, the monetary value of the school is seen as a function of its surrounding neighborhood market conditions. Neighborhoods that are stable or are experiencing population growth and increased market demand, such as South Philadelphia, saw schools purchased quickly. Schools in neighborhoods with weak markets, deep poverty, and high vacancy such as North Philadelphia, did not.
Broadening our perspective
A school’s worth to a neighborhood is captured by some combination of all three of these values. But without a conversation about which value takes priority, planning and decision making processes become tense. For example, during the closure and sales process, city and district leaders recognized the loss of an educational space, but were focused most intensely on the monetary value of school buildings. This focus largely ignored the broader functions of the school as a social infrastructure and their symbolic value as civic spaces and representations of public investment in otherwise disinvested neighborhoods.
Closing schools will probably never be an easy process. Arguably, these values may always be in deep conflict with each other.
I hope that naming the multiple ways that people think about the worth of schools in neighborhoods is the first step in creating a more constructive process for school reuse.
That awareness will help us create a process that honors everyone’s values, and meaningfully grapples with how to balance the district needs for revenue, concerns for civic spaces and public investment, and the realities of real estate markets.
Guest writer Ariel H. Bierbaum has spent the past decade working at the intersection of urban planning and public education. She is currently pursuing her PhD in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California-Berkeley. She also serves as adjunct faculty in the Architecture and Community Design Program at the University of San Francisco and is a Visiting Scholar in the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Ariel on Twitter at @arielabd. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Community Design Collaborative.