School Siting

Location Affects The Potential to Walk or Bike


State and local-level decisions regarding school siting, construction, and design have significant impacts on whether homes are located within walking and cycling distance of schools.

Trends indicate that the average school size has grown and that new schools have been increasingly located on large sites away from the families in the neighborhoods that they serve. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that the number of schools in the United States decreased from 262,000 in 1930 to 91,000 today, while student population over the same time has risen from 28 million to 53.5 million. The student population continues to grow; the U.S. Department of Education estimates that by 2030, it will reach 60 million.

In many states and local communities there is a policy bias in favor of constructing new schools rather than renovating or expanding existing ones. Guidelines, recommendations and standards that encourage or require building large schools on new campuses are embedded in a variety of regulations and laws. Some states will only provide state funding for schools that follow such guidelines. In addition, many states have school construction funding formulas that favor new construction over renovation. Such formulas typically establish a limit on what a district may spend to renovate rather than build new, usually a specific percentage of the cost of new construction. The National Trust for Historic Preservation urges states to eliminate these funding policies, because they penalize communities for maintaining and modernizing old schools, even when doing so costs less than building new.

Another set of policies that favors construction of large new schools are "minimum acreage standards." In an effort to get a clearer picture of the role minimum acreage standards play in school locations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the Council of Educational Facility Planners International to research state minimum acreage requirements in 2003 while CEFPI was updating is facilities guide. Recognizing that a "one size fits all" approach is dated and can work counter to a variety of goals, the new "Guide" encourages communities to analyze their needs in order to make appropriate siting decisions. For a complete listing of state policies governing school site size, see As is evidenced by the report, 27 states still have policies that require local communities to build schools on sites that require a certain number of acres, depending on the type of school (elementary, middle or high school) and the number of students it will serve.

According to data from the National Household Travel Survey, in 1969 approximately 50% of elementary school students lived within two miles of their school; by 2001, only about 33% lived within this distance. To achieve the Safe Routes to School goal of getting more children to walk and bicycle to school safely, we must address school siting policies at state and local levels.

Good Policies

Ideally, schools are centers for the community and are located within walking and bicycling distance of the students who the schools serve. To help achieve this goal, minimum acreage requirements for schools have been eliminated in South Carolina, Rhode Island, and Maine since 2003. In addition, an increasing number of states are instituting policies that encourage shared use of school facilities and/or increased coordination between school districts and local governments on school facilities and land use planning.

In some cases, legislation is needed to change state-level school siting and use policies. In other circumstances, changes can be made to policy guidelines through a State Superintendent’s office, a State Department of Education, or other policy body.


The State of Oregon has an excellent school siting handbook which can serve as a model for other states:

In 2002 the Maine State Board of Education and State Planning Office released a report entitled “Making Schools Important to Neighborhoods Again.” This report led to changes in state policy whereby minimum acreage standards for schools were eliminated.

This Pennsylvania resource on renovating versus replacing schools will be of interest to anyone fighting to save a neighborhood school.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s report “Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School” helped to spark national attention to the issue of school siting.

ChangeLab Solutions has a variety of resources on smart school siting, including factsheets and a package of model school siting policies for school districts that want to ensure that their school siting decisions support the educational success, physical health, and overall well-being of students and their community.

The EPA report “Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting," released by the EPA on October 8, 2003, was the first study to empirically examine the relationship between school locations, the built environment around schools, how kids get to school, and the impact on air emissions of those travel choices.

Smart Growth America features several resources on building smart schools including school siting: They also feature a Smart Schools Initiative:

The California Sustainable Schools project of the Division of the State Architect lists several resources related to school siting:

A 2005 doctoral dissertation from Noreen C. McDonald titled “Children’s Travel: Patterns and Influences” has a lot of information and reference analysis regarding school siting and travel implications:

Travel to School: The Distance Factor was published by FHWA’s Office of Policy. The FHWA Policy Office conducts the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) which is undertaken approximately every five to seven years (the national survey costs approx $6 - $8 million and is the nation’s inventory of daily and long-distance travel. It is considered the nation’s flagship survey quantifying the travel behavior of the American public.) For this policy brief, they did an analysis of data from the first national survey completed in 1969 and compared it to the 2001 survey, the latest information available. Please note, any questions for FHWA about the findings of this policy brief should be directed to: Ms. Heather Contrino, FHWA Office of Policy,, 202-366-5060.

The Environmental Protection Agency has links to a broad set of environmental challenges and solutions regarding school facility siting:

A complete listing of state policies governing school site size -

Shared use products from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN).