Healthy Schools - School Siting


What is School Siting?

Thoughtfully considering where to locate a school, is an important first step in having a Healthy School.  School siting decisions should be made prior to:

  • Deciding whether to renovate the existing school or build a new school on the current site or on a new site,
  • Acquiring land for school facilities,
  • Using legacy property already owned by the school system,
  • Leasing space, or
  • Renovating or reusing existing properties and structures already owned by the school system.

The placement of schools or “school Siting” is a practice that now in many communities has become less a part of comprehensive community planning and more a part of decision making made mostly by school systems. In addition to lack of intergovernmental collaboration, school districts across the U.S. have adopted policies and practices that are widely varied for the process of locating or relocating school locations.

What are the School Siting Guidelines?

The guidelines present recommendations for evaluating the environmental and public health risks and benefits of potential school locations during the school siting process. Examples of environmental risks include onsite contamination like chemicals in soil or off-site risks like industrial facilities. A potential environmental and public health benefit is a location that's close to where students live so they can walk or bike to school.

When selecting a school location, it is important to identify and balance the environmental risks and benefits. EPA recommends that the local school system seek to avoid locations that have onsite contamination or are in very close proximity to pollution sources, especially collections of multiple sources, if acceptable alternatives exist within the neighborhoods being served by the school. It is recommended that under no circumstance should a school be built on top of a hazardous waste, garbage, or other landfill property or a former industrial site that has chemical contamination.

How can these guidelines be used?

The guidelines are intended as a resource for states, tribes, communities, school districts, parents and teachers to consider environmental factors when selecting school locations. By following the recommendations in the guidelines, school systems, tribes and states can help provide a safe and healthy environment for children, teachers and staff.

The guidelines provide recommendations on steps to evaluate potential environmental challenges and benefits at candidate sites as well as links to numerous resources that can be useful in selection of locations for schools. The guidelines include a Quick Guide to Environmental Issues for readers to learn more about the types of environmental issues that are important to address in school siting decisions.

Because of children’s smaller size and ongoing development, children are at greater risk to exposure from environmental toxins at sites. Urban youth face greater risk due to the cumulative impact of many environmental exposures and other health problems disproportionately faced by lower income families.

It is recommended that school systems evaluate potential environmental and public health risks and benefits of candidate school locations before a new school is selected. The siting guidelines provide information to help school systems navigate the environmental review of candidate sites, including an example of one way that the environmental review process could be organized.

Meaningful public involvement is important throughout the school siting process. The guidelines provide recommendations on public involvement. One recommendation is the formation of a school siting committee that includes representatives from the community to provide input on considering environmental factors at potential school locations.

Questions for evaluating potential locations

  • Which locations present the least risk of exposure to pollutants whose origin was either onsite or offsite? Sites having environmental issues are inexpensive for a reason but long-term cleanup costs add up. These costs to prevent exposures at these sites would ultimately fall onto the shoulders of local taxpayers. Environmental monitoring at these sites would also be required adding additional costs for taxpayers to absorb.
  • Which locations have opportunities for shared or joint use of school facilities (such as a library, classrooms, physical activity facilities or a health clinic) or community facilities (such as an athletic center or park)?
  • Which locations best fit with local, tribal, regional and state development plans?
  • Which locations would give the most students additional physical activity opportunities by being able to walk or bike to school?
  • Which locations would result in the lowest potential for negative impacts on the environment?

Involving the public

At the beginning and throughout the process of considering environmental factors in the school siting process it is essential for the school system to involve the public by reaching out to stakeholders in the community, especially those most impacted by the decision to build a new school or renovate an existing school. Stakeholders can include parents, teachers, school personnel, school health council or team members, community and business leaders, and nearby residents. It is important to develop a communications plan and to identify opportunities for meaningful public involvement to ensure the public is engaged throughout the entire school siting process. The communication plan should include written reports, community public meetings and addressing public comments.

It is also important to enhance the capacity of disadvantaged and other community members to participate in the process through facilitating access to technical information and assistance and providing access to information for individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency.

To ensure public involvement in consideration of environmental factors in school siting decisions, it is recommended that the school systems establish a school siting committee. This committee should generally consist of representatives of the school systems and its governing body, local government or tribal staff, and representatives from stakeholder groups that can help the school systems identify and evaluate potential school locations (both new and existing).

Walk, Bike or Ride?

According to data from the National Household Travel Survey, in 1969 approximately 50% of elementary school students lived within two miles of their school.  By 2001, only about 33% lived within this distance. To achieve the Safe Routes to School goal of getting more children to walk and bicycle to school safely, we must address school siting policies at state and local levels.

Ideally, schools are centers for the community and are located within walking and bicycling distance of the students who the schools serve. To help achieve this goal, minimum acreage requirements for schools have been eliminated in South Carolina, Rhode Island and Maine since 2003. In addition, an increasing number of states are instituting policies that encourage shared use of school facilities and/or increased coordination between school districts and local governments on school facilities and land use planning.

Choose Safe Places image

For information about early learning and education visit our Website.  Learn how we screen daycares and other child care centers site locations for potential environmental hazards.

Government partners

Environmental Protection Agency
School Siting Guidelines
Smarth Growth and School Siting

State of Rhode Island
School Siting Guidance

California Department of Education
School Site Selection and Approval Guide

Other partners

Institute for Local Government
School Siting Policies

National Association of Realtors
School Building and Siting

Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Safe School Siting Toolkit