EPA Releases New School Siting Guidelines

  • April 30, 2013
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The Environmental Protection Agency has released a new set of guidelines for school siting, which are downloadable for free and highlighted in a webinar series on Wednesday, May 8th.

Cities and communities all across the country are faced with a dilemma. As populations grow, more students need to be educated and more schools need to be built. Beginning after World War II with suburbanization, the national trend skewed toward large schools that house many students (as opposed to more small schools). But determining the logistics of when and where to build a school comes with a number of sustainability issues that could have major impact on the local environment.

That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a new set of guidelines for school siting, which are downloadable for free. To highlight best practices, the EPA is hosting a webinar series on Wednesday, May 8th at 1pm EST. (Register here.)

The guidelines present recommendations for gauging the potential environment and public health risks and benefits of potential school locations during the siting process, including assessing risks such as soil contamination or potential off-site hazards like nearby chemical plants or industrial facilities. But this is not all about potential risk: the guidelines include information on assessment for potential sustainability positives of a location, such as the proximity to residential areas with a high student population, so students can easily and safely walk or bike to school.

Rochelle Davis, President and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign, served on the committee to create these new recommendations, and we applaud the EPA for creating this great resource.

It is important to note that the EPA School Siting Guidelines are not mandatory and are not to be applied retroactively. They are designed to inform and improve the school siting decision-making process moving forward.

These guidelines are a fantastic resource, and for those interested, the EPA is hosting a webinar highlighting best practices on how to use them. This free online session on May 8 will feature panelists Suzi Ruhl, Senior Attorney Policy Advisor in the Office of Environmental Justice; Regina Langton, Senior Policy Analyst, Office of Sustainable Communities and Katherine Moore, Manager of the Sustainable Growth Program at the Georgia Conservancy.

Moore became involved with school siting through the Conservancy several years ago. In Georgia, the locations around new schools had a noticeable impact on land use patterns.

Different states are experiencing different things, she says, but generally, the national trend has become that schools are being built on the outskirts of communities, which she says “undermines the core of community.” The distance hinders students who may otherwise choose to walk or bike to school, but it also demonstrates a shift away from communities and from the school as a community resource. “That’s a social issue, but also affects planning,” Moore says. “What can happen is that when the school is built on this site, it may trigger new development around that school. Research of others has shown us that schools can be a contributor to sprawl, and our sustainable growth program wants to educate on bigger-picture consequences.”

The EPA understands that school siting decisions must be made locally and that no site will be one-size-fits-all, but Moore hopes these resources and the new guidelines will encourage decision-makers to think about the bigger picture when considering property purchase and development. Among the tools found in the guidelines is a comprehensive table of suggestions and factors for siting, including current state of the site, previous use and both potential man-made and environmental hazards, such as possibility of flooding. So far, she says the resources are indicative of a greater awareness of these potential consequences.

Moore says the EPA has been very encouraging for school siting for decision-makers not just for looking at the big picture with new school sites, but with the possibility of extending old ones. “Old is not synonymous with obsolete,” she says. “We may be able to expand, repair, renovate a space so that it can meet our existing and future needs without saying, ‘We don’t have space for classrooms or music or art programs so we need a new school.’”

Moore says she’d like to see this webinar used as an opportunity to “train the trainers,” giving  community leaders and decision-makers the tools to learn about school siting and then train others. “We realize that a small but important effort on our and the EPA’s part is to educate key people and to give them resources, so they can go back to their peers.”

Register for this exciting webinar today!