Fairfax Suburbanista

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Posted by Fairfax City Citizens on June 10, 2009

A standard opening line used by advocates for walkable and bicycle-friendly communities at community meetings is, “How many of you walked to school?” followed by “How many of your kids do?” I actually grew up in a community where very few of us walked to school, while my spouse customarily walked to school. That makes us representative of our X Generation. About half of all American kids in the late ’60s walked or bicycled to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the percentage has been declining rapidly over the last 40 years.

Both of the past two neighborhoods we’ve lived in have had neighborhood schools close down within the past decade.  In Ormewood Park, a streetcar suburb near downtown Atlanta, it was Anne E. West Elementary School, a beautiful old school on a hill and right in the middle of a warren of small streets that we went past frequently on our walks. Here in Fairfax City our neighbors sent their kids to Westmore Elementary School, a much less prepossessing building built in the ’50s when the forest was being carved for the split-level “Buckinghams” of the Warren Woods neighborhood where we live. Westmore was closed six or seven years ago.

Demographics were the most obvious reason for both closures. Ormewood Park lost a lot of its school-age population and empty nesters and same-sex couples were the “early adopters” moving in in the ’80s and ’90s. Many families were coming back to Ormewood Park in the early 2000s.  Warren Woods has a large proportion of older residents whose kids have grown — although, again, many families with school-age kids are moving in.

But the schools were also closed for institutional reasons —  such as the cost savings and improved curricula that would allegedly come from consolidating schools and policies that discourage rehabilitating older schools. Across the country new schools are being built on vast lots with little or no pedestrian orientation. Many states have policies that prohibit rehabilitation of their older, often neighborhood-based schools if the costs cross a certain percentage of what it would cost to build a new school. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Neighborhood Schools project is a great resource on this topic.

That said, I would have done the same thing as the Fairfax school administrators in closing Westmore,  investing in other existing physical plants and concentrating children in fewer schools. Fairfax has invested a huge amount of money in rehabilitating and expanding its schools. Providence, where our son goes to school, has beautiful day-lit classrooms, a great playground, and people are just clearly happy to be there. My elementary school was a dank 19th-century building with utility sinks in the halls, and I have few happy memories. (It has since been turned into condominiums.)

So there are very legitimate reasons that Daniel, our son, can’t walk to school. What’s less justifiable are the barriers between our home and school that make it difficult and dangerous for kids living closer to the school than we do to walk, and that make it hard for residents like us within bicycling distance to bike to school. In particular, Route 236, Fairfax Boulevard, and Jermantown Road. Between our home and the school are two arterial roads and a collector road (Jermantown). The city is widening Jermantown but adding no on-road bicycle accommodations.


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