Hartford's "Learning Corridor" Leads to Urban Revival
Frog Hollow project’s focus: rebuilding neighborhood school
March 16, 2003 |
Elm Street Writers Group
|Hartford's "Learning Corridor," with its bright, open design, lively colors and child-sized furnishings, has become a model for ailing metropolitan areas that suffer the ills of deteriorating schools. Such schools help combat the sprawl triggered by pricey, new mega-schools built on the urban fringe.|
If ever a small city suffers the ills of urban and educational blight, it is Hartford — Connecticut’s capital. The "most destitute l7 square miles in the nation's wealthiest state,” said the New York Times last summer. Even on a Saturday with a convention in town, you could hear a feather fall in the center city. More parking space than place, downtown Hartford is devoid of shoppers; they've all gone to malls in the bedroom suburbs of affluence and free-for-all-development.
Not far from downtown, however, on Hartford’s South Side, one of the nation’s best small colleges has joined community leaders in reaping the rewards of a six-year-old architectural, educational, and neighborhood redevelopment project that is reversing the wheels of urban decay. By investing in creating a neighborhood school that provides education and job training close at hand, the project has become a model for ailing metropolitan areas that suffer the ills of deteriorating urban schools and sprawl, exacerbated by pricey, new mega-schools on the urban fringe.
Hartford’s “Learning Corridor” project was largely the vision of Evan Dobelle, former president of Trinity College, an elite academic institution that anchors Hartford’s Frog Hollow area. More entrepreneur than academic, Trinity’s vigorous leader convinced his peers on the college’s board to launch a $l75 million campaign in 1996 to build a “community of learning” with schools, playing fields, a job center, and other facilities surrounded by an attractive collection of places and spaces. The objective was to quell the violence and decay that threatened the college's student recruitment and ivier-than-ivy reputation by reinvigorating the l5-block “war zone” neighborhood that surrounded its campus.
Reviving a Neighborhood with Education
While main streets and town centers have made comebacks throughout the nation, Hartford’s notion of a “Learning Corridor” to strengthen neighborhood schools was novel. It has also proved to be workable: it demonstrates how modernizing existing schools and building new facilities in one corner of the city can revive a neighborhood, cut crime, and attract parents and students lost in the flight to homogenous, car-dependent outburbs. Designed by SmithEdwards Architects, the Learning Corridor smoothed over the town-gown no-man’s-land in Frog Hollow, brought new life to a nearly dead inner city zone, and even won an architectural award.
Today, the l6-acre project enlivens its forbidding surroundings with a collection of buildings wrapped around a courtyard. Bright rooms blending open space and closure flow from one to the next, with lively colors and attractive child-sized furnishings animating the interior. Outside, the peaked roofs give the complex the sense of a child’s village, while the planted inner courtyard and larger playing fields endow the center — and the community — with a sense of connection to nature and the outdoors.
Attracting Suburban Parents
The Learning Corridor may seem a tiny island in the sea of desperate measures that characterize Hartford’s condition. In fact, some critics say that such singular private efforts deflect from the efforts of public agencies to strengthen existing neighborhood schools. But others rejoice that it gives options to urban parents and encourages them to avoid suburban flight, while simultaneously encouraging suburban communities to avoid the current practice of replacing urban schools with new ones built in corn fields.
This last point is vital. As surely as one-room school bells once rang in small town America, new mega-schools are sprouting in the outburbs. With them comes the dispersal that helps empty small towns and cities alike, keeps kids and parents incarcerated in their cars, and creates more of the sprawl that damages both cities and suburb.
In part, Hartford’s problems, like those of Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Louisville, are linked to the construction of new schools in suburban neighborhoods and the deterioration of existing schools in urban ones. Big box schools, like big box stores, lure families to remote regions far from closer, older neighborhoods. Requiring pedal-to-the-metal transportation, such far-flung, new schools not only pull parents outwards from walkable centers, but also trigger traffic-induced road widenings that create a world where Jane and Johnny can't walk and open space and tree-lined roads can't survive.
In recognizing the roots of the problem, Trinity College sought an effective, privately-financed solution that simultaneously strengthened its neighborhood school, shored up its own future — and provided a model useful for other places. Indeed, such principles have gained significant, statewide momentum in such disparate places as South Carolina and Michigan.
Other States Get the Message
In South Carolina, new Republican Governor Mark Sanford called for the revival of “smaller, community-centered schools” in his State of the State address, sharply criticizing “the construction of massive, isolated schools that are inaccessible to the communities they serve.” In early March, state Representative Bill Herbkersman introduced a measure that would shrink acreage for new schools, cap the number of students, and pomote walkable neighborhood schools.
Similarly, new Michigan Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm expressed concern about the cost and social consequences of new school sprawl. The state’s Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Land Use Institute, a Smart Growth advocacy group, are teamed up to study how school sprawl shapes patterns of development and recommend measures to change those policies.
Trinity College’s success in reviving a public school to help secure a healthy urban neighborhood points to some new A-B-C’s for reviving urban life. By improving the "Three R’s" and securing spaces and places fit for the walker’s tread, the college proved we can release Americans from car-bound lives and make both the young and old healthier, wealthier, and wiser.
Jane Holtz Kay (firstname.lastname@example.org), architecture critic for The Nation, is the author of Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Get It Back, and Lost Boston.