Rethinking the relationship between educational and urban planning

New research by RMIT academics calls for education and planning authorities to widen current policy discussion over the community use of school facilities and rethink how schools engage with their urban surroundings.

Recent Victorian education policy prioritises a strategy of opening up schools for extended or shared use.

A $50 million fund announced through the 2016-17 Shared Facilities Fund by the Victorian Government aims to deliver integrated community facilities on school sites.

The infrastructure projects selected through this program aim to improve the amenity, liveability and resilience of communities, support connections, enhance services and provide local job.

Extending the use of school facilities for community purposes, or co-locating community services on school sites, can help with timely provision of social infrastructure, particularly in new urban growth areas.

The research paper Beyond the School Fence: Rethinking Urban Schools in the Twenty First century by Dr Ian McShane, together with Research Fellow Chris Wilson from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research, examines the key challenges for the provision of schools and schooling in the 21st century, seeking to foster a conversation between education planners and the local authorities.

The policies for the shared facilities can promote service coordination, build social capital and achieve economic efficiency, say the authors however; the policy conversation too often stops at the school fence.

Government schools, despite their significant role in our everyday life, have traditionally been exempt from the local planning laws, and the tradition of ‘big box’ campus-style schools has contributed to some negative social and environmental impacts, including sprawl and car dependency, says lead author Dr Ian McShane.

“The ideal of liberal education, manifest as a ‘community within a community’ has also discouraged coordinated planning and duplicated facilities provided by local authorities,” he said.

“In contrast to government school planning, however, non-government schools (which educate around one-third of Australian students) are subjected to local planning processes, further highlighting a need for greater coordination in this area.”

The research paper re-works the concept of ‘urban schools’ to emphasised the relationship between educational, community and spatial planning.

“The concept of the ‘urban school’ emerged in 1960s educational debates,  focussing on educational disadvantage connected with racial and class stratification in inner-city,” he said.

“With the inversion of cities, disadvantaged and poverty is more likely to be found in outer suburbs, rather than the inner-city. Indeed, the provision of new schools in inner suburbs is often a signifier of gentrification.

“We wanted to look at urban school as having a spatial and planning element rather than being focused on the education disadvantage.”

The revised concept, then applies at different scale across metropolitan and regional areas.

The relationship between schools and their urban settings, and planning needs, will vary across these settings.

The provision of recreational space for the community and schools alike may be a pressing issue for established inner urban areas, say the authors, where timely infrastructure provision is vital for new communities. .

Melbourne is selected as the research setting due to the city’s rapid growth, and changes in planning narratives which  to increasingly focus on social and environmental sustainability  and policy options for future infrastructure provision.

These options must include greater scrutiny of the closure of schools and the disposal of educational land, says McShane.

“We need more research and policy debate about the educational demand cycle of suburbs, so public land can be re-utilised or re-purposed and eventually returned to educational use in response to demographic change.”

“The debate, therefore, should also be about the regeneration and reopening of schools as well as than initial provision.”

Having schools share existing facilities with the community has potential to solve some pressing infrastructure problems.

However, there are many practical challenges to realise this aim.

“While it is possible for schools to share its facilities with the local communities, there are several challenges in terms of managing and policing those facilities,” McShane said.

“These challenges include basic documentation and facility agreements on use and maintenance, through to policing inappropriate behaviours from public members when the spaces belong to both schools and local authorities.

“Besides physical facilities such as recreation spaces or libraries, we have also investigated the sharing of  school digital facilities including broadband and wifi networks.

“Sharing a wifi network means students might be exposed to certain risks and materials that  schools seek to restrict, whereas public networks, in areas such as shared school-public libraries, are less constrained.

“However, school rules tend to dominate in these shared environments. Our research highlighted a concern of local government planners that agreements over sharing may change with a change of school principal.”

In calling for both education planners and urban planners to participate in local planning processes.

Resources need to be allocated to the ‘partnership work’ involved in integrating and managing school and community facilities and services, says McShane.

“However, in the context of urban growth and densification in major cities such as Melbourne, educational planning is inseparably connected with employment and lifelong learning,  transport and housing policy, environmental sustainability and digital connectivity.”

Story: Duong Tran