The physical location of a school in relation to residential developments can directly impact the distance to school for students and accessibility between a child’s home and their school. The further a school is from a residence, the more likely that a student will require motorized travel school (i.e. public school bus or private passenger vehicle) (McDonald et al., 2011). When K-8 schools are located near or within residential developments, the distance to school can be relatively short. For example, in 1969, 41% of students between kindergarten and 8th grade lived within one mile of school. The close proximity of students living near school had consequences for school travel and contributed to high rates of walking and bicycling to school; in 1969, 89% of children who lived within one mile of school walked or biked to school (Beschen, 1972).


The distance between schools and local residential communities have historically been influenced by the neighborhood design and real estate development patterns in the U.S. Neighborhood planner Clarence Perry played a significant role in the traditional physical placement of schools in the center of neighborhoods and communities for residential neighborhoods in the U.S.  Perry, drawing from the pragmatic aspirations of educational philosopher John Dewey, saw schools as central to planned urban life and cohesive communities.  Through his position within the Regional Plan Association (RPA), Perry was able to influence the development of thousands of residential developments in the U.S. – placing schools in the very center of the neighborhood unit model.  As a result, residential developments that accompanied American industrialization and middle class homeownership often had schools in the center of the community (Gillette, 2010).

However, the population and policy trends in the U.S. following WWII introduced several important shifts in the geography of schools.  First, school enrollment policies began to reflect court-mandated integration, which often included intra-district school busing (Gans, Dentler & Davidoff, 1964).  Second, maintenance and repair costs of older schools could be costly; some districts decided to build new schools rather than renovate existing schools (Council of Educational Facility Planners International, 2004).  Third, an emphasis on larger campuses and learning environments necessitated the construction of new schools on larger parcels of land. Fourth, decisions on where to build new schools were guided by two related factors: the minimum acreage requirements legislated in many states and the lower cost of land parcels on the development edge of many communities (McDonald, 2010).


School population size and location is directly related to school travel; the larger the school enrollment, the more land that is required and the larger the school catchment areas, which corresponds with longer distances from home to school.  These trends in school policy and construction are reflected in school travel rates based on the 2009 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS). Of those children that lived within one mile of school in 2009, only 35% walked or biked to school compared to the 89% in 1969 (McDonald et al., 2011).

Figure 1 illustrates a common development pattern observed in the United States; in this example the school was constructed on a green field site located on the edge of the municipality’s residential development.

Figure 1. School Siting – Design and Distance

School Site Location
Distance: The location of the school site in relation to surrounding land uses is an important aspect of site location and access to the school
The design of a school site, such as the orientation of the school to the road frontage and setback distance of the school, can influence community accessibility to the school.
Design: The design of the school site, orientation of the school to the road frontage and setback distance of the school can influence access to the school.


The size of the school site, which refers specifically to school’s land acreage, impacts location of the school site and the distances from residences to the school entrance. Typically, the larger the school’s acreage the less pedestrian-connected residential units will be located within a walking distance of the school (McDonald, 2010). Correspondingly, state laws articulating minimum acreage requirements for schools based on per-pupil student ratio calculations can constrain the locational options for the construction of schools, and thus decrease the percentage of students who have potential pedestrian access to the school. Minimum acreage requirements, or “guidelines”, require a minimum school footprint. For example, state legislature may require new school construction to occur on a school site with five acres plus an additional acre for each 100 children (Georgia Department of Education, 2012).

In addition to minimum acreage requirements, states may also require school districts to build newly constructed schools rather than renovate older schools that often sit on smaller school sites embedded within neighborhoods and communities. However, when considering the full social costs over the life of a school, it is often more expensive to build a new school rather than renovate an older school, in part due to the additional costs of school travel associated with schools built farther away from residential developments.