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April 12, 2023

Grey Adaptation for Community Schools

Grey Adaptation for Community Schools
The adaptation and mitigation need of communities is significant and must be addressed. How planners interpret the current and future state of schools is fundamental to effective adaptation and mitigation strategies for community development. Climate adaptation and mitigation has yet to become an area of focus for school districts.

In the last post I indicated that grey and soft climate adaption is an opportunity for planners to reinterpret the role of schools in community development. In this post, I will build upon grey adaptation.

A Drastic Shift

Reinterpreting the role of schools in community development begins with a full appreciation of the effort necessary for community adaptation and mitigation. The scope of work required is reinforced by the OPPI in its Statement on Climate Change Amid the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference. “Preparing for the unavoidable impacts of climate change requires a drastic shift in the way we build our communities and requires immediate and committed action at every level of government, society, and across all sectors.”

Schools are the heart of many neighbourhoods and a critical component of social infrastructure. Resilience to climate change is the means to a deeper connection between planners and school districts for community development through the lens of equity, local participation, and alignment with local services and enterprise. Schools remain an underutilized resource in the broader planning of community-based responses to climate change and extreme weather events.
A traditional interpretation of the role of schools in community development would isolate grey adaptation and mitigation to school infrastructure alone. In comparison, as illustrated below, planners need to address the cascading systems loop of climate change on community infrastructure and services overall, including schools.

Source: Adaptation Training for Ontario Planners Module 1

The term “community school” is used regularly to reinforce the connection between schools and their surrounding neighborhood(s). However, the term is operationally complicated - with localized school district policies that are accountable to Provincial funding and the Education Act of Ontario. How we interpret and operationalize “community schools” is akin to the success of community adaptation and mitigation measures at large.

One way for planners to consider this involves how school districts will adapt to municipal housing intensification. Another way involves how school districts will adapt their operations to address student and family needs impacted by climate change. There are evolving expectations from parents and students, magnified by the pandemic, about what community schools should be. 

Three examples (school facility upgrades, school program locations, and school space availability) are provided below to demonstrate how school district operations can promote a new interpretation of community schools to intersect with effective grey climate adaptation.

School Facility Upgrades

The last time data was released in 2017, Ontario had a backlog of school facility upgrade needs of more than $15B. It is not clear of the extent to which grey adaptation is accounted for in this infrastructure gap. The upgrading needs of some schools are so are extensive that complete rebuilds would likely be required.  
Planners will need to assist decision making about the number and location of community schools in support of larger community development objectives. At a minimum, school facilities will require risk assessments to plan and implement upgraded heating, cooling, and defense from extreme weather such as flood protection and climate shelters.


A more robust commitment would support a new interpretation of schools as community infrastructure, with upgrades that promote multi-dimensional operations to improve the connection between local people and services with schools. Included in this interpretation of community schools is the need for widescale digital transformation and improved accessibility for students and staff with disabilities.

Indigenous culture does not easily align with traditional land use planning or industrial-era school structures. Addressing the grey adaptation and mitigation needs of community schools is an opportunity to engage Indigenous values through upgrades that promote holistic education and greater participation from the wider community.

School Program Locations

One of the most identifiable aspects of school district operations to be addressed through grey adaptation is student transportation. Operational alternatives will be required, including electric vehicles, overall service reductions, and support for other means such as cycling, walking, and public transportation.

Student transportation operates in accordance with school attendance boundaries. School attendance boundaries are organized by school programs. Students do not necessarily attend the school in their immediate vicinity. Most school districts operate overlapping program attendance boundaries that seek to draw a critical mass of students to maintain program viability. French immersion, specialized arts and science, and programs for students with special needs are examples of this.  A former colleague of mine perhaps summarized it best by suggesting that a community school is the school that your child attends.

Planners will need to assist community efforts to optimize community school program locations in keeping with changing operational viability benchmarks impacted by grey adaptation. Ensuring flexibility and equity of student access to school programs will be of key importance.

Space availability

The term “community use of schools” is an operational challenge for Ontario school districts. Daytime surplus space is calculated by comparing pupil classroom loadings with actual enrolments to determine a percentage rate of utilization. Purpose built daycares are not included in school capacity calculations. In contrast to this operational definition, schools readily find alternative uses for “surplus space” through a variety of means to accommodate students, staff, and students and staff.

The availability of after-hours community use of schools is determined by individual school district policy, often involving user fees to support custodial cleaning and general maintenance.

The amount of space available from community schools to align with community-wide adaptation and mitigation efforts will be open to interpretation, depending upon:
  • fluctuating enrolments due to program location and transportation changes,
  • changing instructional models such as remote and on-line instruction,
  • competing demand from community services and organizations, and
  • changes in the provincial methodologies used to calculate surplus school space for operational purposes.

Community organizations and leaders are encouraged, in keeping with the Ontario Ministry of Education Community Planning and Partnerships Guideline, to regularly share planning information with school districts, with a particular focus on the availability and use of surplus school space. These meetings are an opportunity for planners to engage a deeper conversation with school districts about grey adaptation and mitigation for a new interpretation of community schools.
In the next post I’ll present equally important considerations and perspectives about soft adaptation for community schools.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Phil Dawes

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