New York magazine featured a great story last week on school overcrowding in Manhattan. What struck me -- aside from concerns about how my own kid might fare -- was this passage about the city's failure to anticipate that New York's success in retaining families over the last decade would result in the need for more classroom space:
Growth is not spontaneous; a city must build it before they will come. When Bloomberg promised to reinvent downtown, and by extension the rest of New York, after 9/11, he stoked residential development with an array of tax breaks. Unlike the towers of old, the buildings that sprang up weren't marketed as pieds-à-terre for Port Washington sophisticates or glam toeholds for junior execs. In a borough once synonymous with the studio apartment, the new Manhattan properties featured three and four bedrooms, plus the signature millennial amenity: the building playroom.
In 2007, the Department of Buildings issued permits for 31,918 units, a 35-year high-water mark. By the most conservative estimate, that year's activity alone brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the city coffers in closing taxes, much of it from buyers lured by strong public schools. But a disconnect yawned between development and the children it engendered. The crux of it, says Beveridge, is revealed in PlaNYC 2030, the mayor's blueprint for a livable city of 9 million people-who, it should be noted, will be making lots more kindergartners. The document called for parkland within ten minutes of each New Yorker and a local war on global warming, but spent less than a sentence on the DOE's capacity needs. "School construction is not part of the plan-full stop," Beveridge says. "They plan all the other infrastructure, but they don't worry about the schools."
When I covered growth and development for The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina earlier this decade, some city officials had exactly the same kind of blinders on. It seemed that the planning commission and the school board could never get on the same page.
Gigantic new subdivisions would be approved in former farm fields on country backroads without taking into account the need for school growth, and school district planners seemed to consistently underestimate the need for new classroom space. It was a recurring concern for neighborhood leaders and parents -- one that I wrote about several times in the paper.
I'm a big believer in the need for cities. Counterintuitive as it may seem, dense urban concentrations provide a lot of benefits to the environment (along with many challenges, of course). Life in big, dense cities allows reduced energy use per capita, greater transit ridership, fewer vehicle miles traveled, preservation of open space and more benefits that serve to reduce the overall carbon footprint of its residents. That's why New York frequently ranks among the "greenest" cities in the country, even though it's not what most people might consider eco-friendly.
But dense urban concentrations also require smart planning and provision of services for their tightly packed populations. New York does this well on so many fronts (troubles with the MTA notwithstanding). It would be a shame if an inability to provide adequate schools for its children were to drive people away.
It's strange that officials seem to have the same problems planning for new school buildings and classroom size, whether we're talking about suburban Charlotte or New York City Hall. My own son has five or six years before we enroll him in kindergarten. I hope the blinders have come off by then.