Schools, Climate and Our Changing Province

“The role of the provincial government is critically important. It must provide the leadership and model the behaviour and actions needed to ensure sustained and ambitious actions to address the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change.” (New Brunswick Climate Change Action Plan, 2016) 

Current discussions between communities and the Anglophone South District Education Council regarding school closures in Saint John have yet to consider climate change as a significant factor in the upcoming decisionmaking on neighbourhood schools. Our ability as a City, and as communities, to mitigate the impacts of climate change and adapt into the future is intrinsically tied to our schools which act as community hubs not only for education but also for capacity building and community resilience. 

In late 2016, the Government of New Brunswick released its Climate Change Action Plan which is “supported by actions to build resilience into our communities, businesses, infrastructure and natural resources.” (p. 4) The following actions from the New Brunswick Climate Change Action Plan directly relate to the placement or site selection of schools in New Brunswick:

Action #18: In urban areas, and where possible elsewhere, preferentially locate public buildings in areas accessible by public transit, walking and cycling (p. 7)
Action #25: Engage with municipalities and regional service commissions to encourage actions at the community planning and local development stages that include strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation, smart growth and brownfield and infill development (p. 8)
Action #50: Collaborate with municipal and local governments to expand cleaner alternative transportation options such as electric vehicles, public transit, carpooling, ride-sharing, bicycling and walking (p. 13)
Action #62: Encourage community and regional land-use planning practices that incorporate energy efficiency, energy conservation, carbon sequestration, reduced emissions, support healthy built environments and which incorporate and encourage communities to improve the availability and accessibility of safe alternative forms of transportation such as walking, cycling and public transit (p. 15)
Action #63: Provide incentives to promote smart growth (natural infrastructure, green buildings, low-impact developments) and sustainable community design. (p.15)

These action items give the province a unique opportunity to take leadership on climate change by ensuring that schools remain in neighbourhoods wherein children already walk or cycle to school, limiting their family’s dependence on automobiles and fostering a sense of community in our youngest citizens as they interact daily with their community and surrounding environment. Lifestyle behaviours learned by children, including using sustainable modes of transportation, will influence future behaviour as these younger generations deal with increasing impacts from climate change.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, schools profoundly affect the communities they serve and should follow smart growth principles; they should always be placed within walking distance of residents and neighbourhood services to reduce traffic congestion, support existing communities and facilities, reduce pollution, and preserve open space. 

Action #33(c): Expanded capacity and programs to support low-income New Brunswickers (p. 11)

The schools proposed to be closed are located in priority neighbourhoods of Saint John where there are high concentrations of low-income families. Climate change impacts and extreme weather events disproportionately affect low-income households due to a lack of resources and services to deal with impacts. Schools can provide information, shelter, and community support for socially vulnerable people in dealing with extreme weather events. Furthermore, closure of schools within walking distance for students disproportionately affects families who cannot or choose not to rely on driving a vehicle. Schools that offer more transportation choices have been shown to reduce the amount of land that is paved, reduce automobile and bus traffic, allowing for reductions in air pollution while also promoting increased active transportation use.

In addition, the potential relocation of a school to the fringes of a community can contribute to outward migration from its core, which can cause disinvestment in existing neighbourhoods and contribute to generational poverty cycles and widening gaps in its capacity for adaptation and mobility. School siting policies that discourage renovation or expansion of existing schools and favor building larger new schools can induce traffic congestion, increase fossil fuel emissions and consumption, reduce the proportion of students walking and biking to school, and contribute to disinvestment in existing neighborhoods. This disinvestment further contributes to the physical, social and economic decline seen in many neighborhoods where a large percentage of low-income, minority or traditionally marginalized populations live. 

While the decisions faced by the Anglophone South District Education Council are by no means straightforward, and require careful consideration across our communities, it is important to understand and acknowledge the ramifications of school site selections on climate adaptation, the health of our environment and our city’s success in driving sustainable urban growth. The short term costs of maintaining critical infrastructure such as schools in existing urban neighbourhoods can be part of a long-term community revitalization effort and serve as an impetus for broader revitalization efforts. Our community’s future is directly tied to our success adapting to the challenges posed by global climate change, and while no single action will make or break that future, we must work together to consider our collective impact and the role we each play in making Saint John a champion of resiliency and smart growth.