A New Model for Green Schools

A school in Portland, Oregon, is housed in a super-green building. And that's just the beginning.

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Courtesy: American Architectural Foundation

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Rosa Parks Elementary School in Portland, Oregon is housed in a super-green building that earned a LEED-gold certification and, according to the US Green Building Council, uses 24 percent less energy than a comparably sized but conventionally built school.  About a third of its building materials were locally sourced, and virtually none of the construction waste went to a landfill. All storm water is managed on site, none becoming polluted runoff.

But having a green building is only a small part of the story. Unlike so many new schools being built today, Rosa Parks sits right in the middle of a neighborhood where most of its students can and do walk or bike to school.  A community garden is right across the street. Five large "heritage trees" were preserved on the 2.38-acre site, now a "community campus" also containing a Boys & Girls Club and neighborhood community center managed by the Portland Parks Department.

The website Architects of Achievement describes the school’s role in reviving a diverse and recently distressed neighborhood:

The school is part of the largest revitalization project in Oregon history. Set on land donated by the Housing Authority of Portland, the K-5 school is part of the New Columbia Community Campus, which replaces the old crime-ridden Columbia Villa housing project. Serving as a model for educational improvement throughout the School District, this project was designed to serve the whole child, as well as the family, neighborhood, and greater community.

Architectural Record adds:

The new school is divided into four ‘neighborhoods,’ each containing 125 students. Each neighborhood contains five classrooms, a resource/student support room, and support functions around a ‘Neighborhood Commons.’ At the entry to the school, families are provided their own resource room, as well as access to a library information center. Functions including art, computers, music, and food service are shared with the new Boys & Girls Club.


By all accounts, the school has been a great success and is now a source of much community pride and activity. Instead of relegating our kids to places where it has become illegal to walk to school, instead of schools plopped in the middle of nowhere, this is what we need more of – schools that anchor their neighborhoods, extending sustainability beyond their walls. 

This video elaborates on these concepts better than I can. I love the beginning:  “It wasn’t simply a school project. It was really a community project.” Here's the film:



This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.