School districts lack green principles

New Westminster Secondary School-thumb-550x360-1560.jpg
Would building taller schools result in less energy consumption, more community greenspace and all-around healthier kids?

In a recent post about Michael Ewen, New Westminster’s veteran school board trustee, I wrote about how he purchased himself a computer using scarce tax dollars. The piece triggered a lot of reaction in my local community and there were over 20 comments posted online. Most of them were quite scathing of Ewen’s performance and his penchant for using school district funds to purchase personal iMacs. While some New West residents may genuinely be upset regarding Ewen’s purchase, I suspect their anger truly stems from the fact Ewen was school board chair when plans for a new secondary school fell apart a few years ago.

For those unfamiliar with the New Westminster secondary school fiasco, I can summarize it in this way. The city (pop. 50,000) has only one secondary school which is falling apart and needs to be replaced. The BC Ministry of Education committed (years ago) new funding to build the school once the district had come up with a concrete plan regarding what they needed. The New West School District (NWSD) then revealed a full "bells and whistles" design that was more costly than the province could afford. Their controversial plan included the development of a new low rise school alongside a couple of tall condominium towers on site. The condo towers were touted as a creative way to help pay for the "bells and whistles" low rise school. After years of work and countless millions to develop the plan, it was unceremoniously shelved by Ewen and Co. and the NWSD appears to be back at square one. For more details, I would highly recommend you read Janet Steffenhagen’s blog over at the Vancouver Sun.

To add one more twist, the local First Nations population also claim part of the site is as an historic burial ground and demand nothing be built on that portion of the property. Concerns over First Nation’s burial grounds only became public after the initial design was revealed.

It’s not an overstatement to say the whole New Westminster secondary school fiasco has frustrated every parent in the community. Parents with kids currently at the high school are miffed their teens have missed out on the opportunity to attend a new school. Those with kids attending the middle school are upset the construction may not be complete before their kids graduate. What has frustrated me most during this whole debate is the lack of creativity and green principles applied to the overall initial design.

As you can see from the image above, the secondary school in New West actually sits on a large parcel of land. For a moment, just imagine this size of property suddenly becoming available to the Hong Kong school district. Do you think they would be planning for a squat three story low-rise school spread out over a large chunk of the available land? Not in your lifetime.

A likely scenario is they would build a taller school, set aside some permanent green space and develop the remaining land to pay for the school. Assuming the New West school project doesn’t include a condo/commercial component, what would be wrong with designing a new 10 story high school that required less than 1/3 the land of the previous plan?

As it stands now, most of the schools constructed in our urban centres are founded on the notion that there is plenty of cheap land available for construction. That’s why I’ve had a difficult time locating a single public school constructed in one Canada’s major cities that goes above five stories. Most schools are between one to three stories in height with little thought put into how to make them greener. It is commonly understood that low rise buildings spread out over large areas are no where near as energy efficient as more compact taller buildings.

Besides the environmental impact of requiring less land to construct the school, there are many other ancillary benefits to taller schools. If stairwells are constructed on the outer edge of the building envelope, they can be filled with natural sunlight. A taller building would also guarantee that most students need walk up and down those stairs on a daily basis.

It is worth noting that a severe lack of exercise in our younger generations is leading to an obesity epidemic throughout North America. Our kids are simply not active enough while they continue to pump deep-fried food into themselves at every turn.

In the case of New Westminster secondary, I think there is a relatively simple solution that could result in win-win for local residents, the First Nation community and the environment.

Step 1: Determine which piece of property is not considered an historic First Nations burial ground. My understanding is that only a small corner piece of the property is actually affected. Commit to making this portion of the property permanent green space in order that it remains undisturbed.

Step 2: With the remaining property, agree that NWSD will use the least amount of land possible to build the secondary school while leaving as much green space for recreational and community use. It should be noted that New Westminster is seriously park and green space deficient for a city its size.

Step 3: Bring together some of the most creative architects, developers and educators to brainstorm what kind of taller design could be implemented on this site to meet the needs of the district, students, teachers and taxpayers.

Step 4: Design a new highrise high school (aim for ten storeys) on a small footprint and make it the most eco-friendly and fittest student population in BC.

Step 5: Seek community buy-in and commit to having it constructed within 24 months while the current recession winds down and the cost of building it remains lower.

Step 6: Ask the Province to hand over the money they committed for the school and work with the Ministry of Health to pilot a demonstration project on how taller schools can lead to better health outcomes for kids.

We seriously need to re-think the way we build our schools into the future. Other jurisdictions that lack cheap land and energy have been able to find creative ways of building their schools on the equivalent of a postage stamp. If that means building our schools a bit taller and use less energy while leaving more green space for the community, I’m all for it.

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  • Ghost of Civic Bird-Related Issues Past

    Maybe we could spend this money on actually educating kids instead of fancy highrise schools for them to read their 1968 edition textbooks in.
    And what’s the point of extra green space for recreational use in a school that bans all “running or chasing games” because they’re “too dangerous”

  • bones of the public

    What the majority of people don’t comprehend is that the most of the aerial photo encompasses the original, 27-acre, New Westminster Public Cemetery, in operation from 1859 to 1920. We are not talking about a rinky-dinky cemetery the size of a postage stamp. We are talking about a huge public cemetery containing thousands upon thousands of remains.
    NWSS is built on approx half of this site (and part of this site is being rededicated as a cemetery). Not one inch of the original 27-acre cemetery has been legally decommissioned, the entire cemetery was desecrated section by section over decades, yet apart from one coffin and a “few bones,” there is no record of any other remains being unearthed.
    The question is, did thousands upon thousands of humans remain magically disappear, or were they moved somewhere within the original 27 acre cemetery or dumped, maybe even cremated, off-site? Perhaps a combination of both.
    The Massey wing of NWSS is built on what was the original pauper’s or potters field (this also includes public institutional burials such as unclaimed bodies from the prison,jail,insane asylum, and hospitals). This area was completely filled by 1908 and was known as a “disgrace to humanity.” This area was ploughed, cleared, slashed and burnt in 1911-1912. Here, on these acres, we are taking about fifty years of burials being destroyed to make way for the new City Works Yard built in 1912.
    Adjacent to this section (some say under the present skating rink built in 1972 and where a skull was seen to be unearthed) was the original Chinese cemetery. Somewhere around here may have been the Sikh crematorium as well.
    The Pearson wing of NWSS is built on the four acre institutional/incarcertated/Potter’s field known as Douglas Road cemetery. This section was open for burials from 1908-1920 and a plot map and list of names exists for this section. Adjacent to this section, was the two acre new Chinese cemetery, today seen as a playing field.
    At the start of World War II, this entire section (over 6 acres, both the Douglas and new Chinese cemetery sections) were ploughed and cleared to make way for the army barracks, parade grounds, and field exercises. 10″ sewer pipes were laid as it was expected to turn this area into a residential section after the war.
    The rest of the site? Today, there is a “methane issue” by the skateboard park…meaning? Since this is sandwiched between Mercer Stadium and the church/senior’s home, and ALL of this area was part of the New Westminster Public Cemetery in operation from 1859 to 1920 (and beyond)who knows if remains were moved across the way and dumped in this area?
    The church (formerly an orphanage) was built in 1925. From approx. 1890 to 1911, this area housed the original city works/stables and isolation hospital. Prior to that? Since it had been logged and cleared and was part of the original New Westminster Public Cemetery…what? It was never used for burials?
    So…where does the new school get built? Neither the city or school board wants to deal with desecration of thousands of remains, or having to out the people in power back then who made any of this possible. Mayors, aldermen, regulators, inspectors, committee members, school board officials, department of national defense, provincial government officials (including premiers), heads of institutions, prisons, jails, and the pen. The list goes on and on.
    Corruption? You bet. Stayed tuned for the New West gong show.

  • 3 Ring Circus

    We have the City of new Westminster, and our local school district still treating this High school cemetery issue like a 3 Ring Circus. With Bozo the clown leading the parade. When will it end?

  • Bob Hawkins

    Daniel, you persist in proposing or even insisting that governments choose building densities for green purposes. There may be some occasions where highly increased density is warranted, but if you are using many Asian cities as places we should emulate, that is where you and I differ by a bunch. I have been many times to hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and to Singapore. In none of these places would I choose to raise a family. The density is so impacting on family life that all members are the worse for it. your city’s preferred design is not mine.

  • send in the RCMP

    Before anything gets started, shouldn’t this whole thing (the entire 27 acre New Westminster Public Cemetery) be forensically investigated?
    Now I’m hearing that both the city and school board want the new high school built at the corner of 8th and 8th. If this is true, it means the new NWSS would be built on an area that they know has been illegally cleared (desecrated) at least three times(cleared and plowed in 1911, dug and leveled in 1912, then, after the city works yard was demolished to prep the site for building the Massey part of NWSS in 1948, bulldozed and dug out again).
    Does all of this (number of illegal clearings and passage of time)mean that it’s okay for officials to simply march forward and keep covering up what actually happened? Does the BC regulator of cemeteries not look back at illegal desecration sanctioned and okayed by officials, or worry about where these thousands of remains were dumped?
    Apparently no one is worrying about the methane issue by the skateboard park area, or the methane issue down in Glenbrook. Methane emission numbers that correlate with decomposition.
    Before it goes green, New West needs to be decontaminated.