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January 06, 2023

A New Role for Schools in Community Development

A New Role for Schools in Community Development
In June 2022, I participated in the OPPI Adaptation Training for Ontario Planners, a series of three interactive modules that I recommend for all planners to take and gain insight about community development in response to climate change. One of the conclusions I drew from the series is the opportunity that climate resiliency offers to bridge the gap between planners/planning and school districts in community development.    

Community is a fascinating word. We use it often, although its meaning changes with context. The vision of cooperation and collegiality that the word promotes is unique to everyone. However, for operational purposes, community needs to be defined. Schools are particularly vulnerable to the term community. Everybody wants and appreciates community schools, but how the concept is actually defined and applied for school operations has a profound impact on the lives of students, parents, and society at large.     

Adaptation and Schools   

Building community resilience to climate change involves three types of adaptation which, as illustrated below, are referred to as Grey, Green and Soft. It is reasonable to suggest that school and school district operations generally fall under the categories of Grey and Soft.

Source: Adaptation Training for Ontario Planners Module 1

Grey adaptation measures would involve upgrades and associated modifications to the physical infrastructure of school buildings. Soft adaptation would enable schools to play a leading role in the social impacts of climate change as they relate to education, health and wellbeing and mobilizing people with local climate change action.

A New Reality  

Since their earliest formation, public schools have been linked with community development through zoning and subsidiary facility uses. The role between municipal planners and schools has been limited to land use and, when possible, aligning community services with traditional school structures and processes. This can be difficult for a variety of reasons as they relate to available space, staffing, operational challenges and funding. Our school structures are not organized in a way that can easily optimize these working relationships.

Climate change, along with the pandemic, have demonstrated the need to re-interpret what schools can offer to community development. With families and staff struggling to adopt new and different approaches to work and life, a new challenge has arisen: how schools can best meet the unique needs of all students, parents and the local community at large. The advantages of a deeper connection between schools and community must be recognized as a value proposition.
 People need to see to believe.

Both Challenge and Opportunity

To date, Ontario school districts have had limited engagement with climate change adaptation and mitigation. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for planners. The challenge involves re-interpreting the role of schools in community development to effectively address climate change; not just from a land use perspective, but from the lens of equity, local participation, and alignment with local services and enterprise.

The opportunity involves using climate change and adaption as a means to build a deeper connection between municipal planners and school districts in relation to community development. Planners have a critical role to play.

What does Grey and Soft adaptation look like for planners wanting to assist this updated role for schools with community development? For school districts and municipal planners, the meaning of Grey adaptation needs to extend beyond school buildings to overall school operations. Another way to think about this type of adaptation is to consider what will need to happen to schools as a result of neighbourhood intensification.  These operational considerations relate to, among other things, climate shelters, structural upgrades, digital transformation, student transportation, and program locations that frame student attendance boundaries.

For school districts and municipal planners, the meaning of Soft adaptation needs to focus on bringing people together. Another way to think about this type of adaptation is to consider what community services look like for all age groups. Schools can expedite these linkages through engagement processes and tactics as they relate to, among other things, public awareness, staff development, and communications; promoting conversations that will mobilize people in support of the unique characteristics of their community.    
Stay tuned for the next Planning Exchange Blog post where I’ll provide more information on perspectives and context.

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.


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