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What If We Made Schools Part Of The Urban Community Instead Of Walling Them Off?

If more schools move downtown, we’ll all benefit from their facilities.

If schools have become more distant from their communities in the last few decades, it’s because of Columbine-type events, parental paranoia, and the fact that prime land downtown is more expensive. That’s led to the phenomenon of the out-of-town school located on marginal land. In carving out places for themselves, schools have become more isolated, car-centric, and disconnected–at least from urban residents.

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That’s what triggered Neil Michels, a young London architect, to reimagine the modern school as a partly shared space downtown. His “Civic School” is a series of levels and blocks, some private for education, some set aside for the public, with “permeable” areas at the bottom.


“A new school today is likely to be built as an isolated island, disconnected from its community,” Michels says. “They are often built with walls and fences, suggesting a structure [more] akin to a prison than a school.”

Like other British architects, Michels was upset with the U.K.’s new school building program, started in 2010. Wanting to build quickly, the Conservative-led government borrowed principles from the supermarket sector and was widely criticized for it, at least within design circles. “From now on, our children will be taught in flatpack sheds and converted kebab shops,” said one famous architect.


But Michels’s beef isn’t only aesthetic. He also thinks putting schools downtown is more useful from a public service point of view. They can be used for sports, as places for the public to learn, practice, and work from, and so on. “The school could become a part of the everyday for people who use it,” he says. “This increased programming could see the dining hall used as a coffee shop, artists locating studios within schools, or libraries used as coworking spaces.”

Such arrangements would raise a lot of security and school management questions. But Michels says the arrangement might have funding benefits. If schools were loaning out facilities for community use, they could reasonably apply for noneducation public income, say from public sports funds or municipal social service budgets.


Michels developed the proposal while studying at the University of Sheffield. His adviser there, professor Satwinder Samra, describes it “as thoughtful and highly inventive in terms of revealing the inconsistencies that exist in current school design.”

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“Facilities for education should be embedded within everyday city life so we can ensure citizenship and social cohesion are encouraged from an early age,” he says.

There are a host of practical challenges. But Michels has a refreshing take on school design that goes beyond just making schools more comfortable and open-plan. The location of schools is also important, as it affects how schools relate to their community. That’s worth considering the next time someone wants to build out of town.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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