Empowering communities to envision a future for vacant schools

When budget cuts and population shifts forced the School District of Philadelphia to close down 30 schools in 2013 and 2014, it was a citywide crisis. 

For the people who lost a school, feelings run deep. For countless children, it was the place where the world opened up as they learned to read, explored what laid beyond the bounds of their block or felt the joy of making a friend for life. Parents did not lose an auditorium or gym, but the feeling of watching a child sing their first solo or make the winning shot at the buzzer. 

In documentary photos of the last days of these schools, you can see and feel the emotion of the children, teachers, parents, administrators, security guards and others as they say goodbye; you can feel the loss in the empty hallways. Feelings of pride and possibility were replaced by sadness and anxiety. Would this community anchor become an unsafe eyesore? 

Andy Rachlin of the Reinvestment Fund, a national leader in financing community revitalization, explains what school closings meant for the City. 

“Our communities are literally tight-knit,” he says. “When you have this big empty building in a rowhouse community or a community with twins that are all packed together, it’s a very visible presence in the neighborhood that is stacked with the potential for blight and vacancy. It’s a real risk to the community … even graver, of course, is the psychological impact of having [closed] schools, which are, in ways real and emotional, centers of community. To remove the identity of the neighborhood school, I think, was something that people were very concerned about.”

For some of these properties, developers saw immediate potential and began making plans, taking into consideration community input about what might work for them financially and also serve the neighborhood. This first scenario is an ideal situation where both developers and neighbors win.

But at one site in West Philadelphia, the speed of sale and development moved at a pace that left some community members feeling left behind. 

Due to market or property conditions, other former schools were sure to languish, vacant, for an indefinite period of time. 

Looking at this sensitive and complicated problem, the experienced advocates at the Community Design Collaborative resolved to give communities a voice in what came next for these closed schools and their neighbors, and to give people a tool that can change the world: thoughtful design.