Smart Schools

People around here love the word "smart." We're "smart." We have "smart" kids. We drink "smart" juice. We believe in "smart" growth. And now we want a smart-growth high school in Carrboro.

The smart-growth high school may represent the unified theory of folks who have escaped the city, embraced the space and beauty of our landscape and the pace of our lifestyles, but are still nostalgic for the days when they attended schools that began with "P.S." Establishing an urban neighborhood school in a non-urban environment would represent the overcoming of the last great obstacle to this marriage of fire and water we've been noodling with for the better part of a decade. That is, how to live a life as charged and overflowing and creative and convenient as life in Brooklyn (or Wicker Park, or Cambridge), while dispensing with the smell, and the crowds, and the dirt, and the attenuation of the natural world. Maybe in Carrboro, we think, we can just wish it into being.

Let us consider, then, the classic urban high school. First, you build it in areas that are empty, abandoned, or contain houses or businesses that are easily condemned or seized. Then you build a multi-story building (three stories preferably) with a little football field next door where the parking spaces would have been, ringed by a track. You stick this school right in the middle of someplace where people already live, and you don't build any parking spaces. People -- students, teachers, administrators, janitors -- either walk to school, take the bus, or drive and try to park in a surrounding neighborhood in a space that isn't governed by neighborhood parking permits. (Since trying to find such a space is such a pain, people get the message pretty quickly and quit taking their cars.) It's a drastic and sometimes controversial way of locating a school, but the end result is that people walk to school or ride public transportation because that's the only reasonable way of getting there.

This is exactly not the way we've already gone about locating and planning for the third high school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro District, and so all the talk of a "smart-growth" high school makes me chuckle. The same folks who are all for a "smart-growth" high school are the same ones who get the willies when faced with the prospect of developments arising in the school's surrounding area -- the very developments that would make the school more walkable, more convenient, more of a neighborhood school. The consequence of all this is that, if many people had their druthers, the school would remain out of walking range for most of its students and faculty. Bravely forging on past this inconsistency, they believe that, among other things, routing public buses to the school will make the school "smart." Given the choice of riding in their cars or taking the bus, students and faculty will take the bus because it's "smart."

But any of us who have lived in places where public transportation was the primary means of moving around the city -- in my case, Chicago and Washington D.C. -- know why people use the train and the bus. People use the subway in Chicago, for instance, to get from Rogers Park to the Loop because trying to drive your car down there is an f-ing nightmare, and when you get down there you'll pay half a day's salary to park, if you can find a parking lot. People use public transporation not when it's smarter, but when it's absolutely necessary. The role of our local governing bodies should be to make the use of public transportation absolutely necessary, not just smart.

So, having already handicapped the effort to create a "smart-growth" high school in Carrboro, what can we do to make it just a little "smarter"? Here's one part of a modest proposal: no parking spaces for anyone but faculty (and limited numbers of those). No whining from students and their parents tolerated. You missed the school bus and you're going to be late? Ride the public bus, take your detention (Do they give detentions for tardiness anymore? Probably not.), and vow to wake up on time. The school board and the county commissioners should not cave in on the parking issue. If you build more than a few dozen parking spaces, you might as well give up any hope of building a "smart growth" high school. Furthermore, if you make it virtually impossible to use a car to get to the school, the kind of developments that spring up around the high school (and they will spring up, no matter how much we close our eyes and click our heels and make our wishes) will by necessity be walkable neighborhoods friendly to public transportation, interconnected with each other and full of sidewalks.

But you can't have it both ways. You can't build a high school amenable to cars and then hope that people will use your fine transit system. They won't. The fare-free change in Chapel Hill Transit was a fabulous first step toward creating a viable transportation system -- it made the public bus suddenly much more convenient for a lot of people because it was free. Now let's put the second piece of the puzzle together and make public transit necessary.

No parking spaces at the new high school until we really are smarter!


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