Case Study in Walkability: Olympic Hills Elementary

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This post follows the progress of the School Design Advisory Team (SDAT) at Olympic Hills Elementary in Northeast Seattle, where planning is underway for a new school building that will open in 2017. Jen Cole, Safe Routes to School Director for Feet First, is on the SDAT and has been contributing to conversations about walkability and the future school campus. Read her first SDAT blog posting for background information.


Behold the future! (You can walk there from here.)

OHE pref concept illustration 022514
Click on image to enlarge.

On February 25, 2014, the illustration to the right was unveiled at a public forum for neighbors and friends of Olympic Hills Elementary in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood. The result of 10 weeks’ rigorous discussion on the part of the School Design Advisory Team (SDAT), the image is still far from the actual design. Instead, it illustrates underlying concepts and values that SDAT members believe will make this new school successful. This includes configuring classrooms to maximize teacher collaboration, making portions of the building open for community use, and making sure each classroom is equally situated to receive sunlight. Among these bedrock considerations was the need to maximize walkability to the school.


Feet First was not alone in wanting to prioritize a walkable campus.

The Olympic Hills SDAT has many walking advocates. Teachers acknowledged the educational benefits of active students, architects focused on a policy mandate to design for sustainability, administrators were mindful of the needs of families with no bus service, neighbors were eager to minimize added traffic, and everybody — everybody! — wanted a more peaceful daily drop-off and pick-up experience.


What makes this new school campus walkable?

  1. You are invited to walk to the front door. Olympic Hills will not repeat the common, car-centric practice of placing the parking lot in front of the main entrance. This makes it less hazardous to reach the front door and projects the message that the school is designed for people, not cars.
  2. Crossing driveways is kept to a minimum. Students who travel on foot or on bike will have continuous sidewalk to both the front entrance on 20th Ave NE and the secondary entrance near the drop-off and pick-up loop. From the Northeast, students will be able to enter the campus near the outdoor stairway and walk (or run) across the fields, as they do today.
  3. The car drop-off and pick-up loop is separated from the yellow bus area. One of the golden rules for arrival and departure safety is to separate modes of transportation. This concept design separates the buses from the cars and keeps people walking and biking from needing to cross either of those vehicle zones.

Refinement of the design will continue with the feedback from SDAT and the community. On the radar of the design team will be educational displays of the building’s energy use, secure bicycle parking, and a landscape design that is both beautiful and educational.


Challenges still exist.

Mindful engineering is only one factor in a formula to get people walking (with education, encouragement, and enforcement important parts of the equation). The current Olympic Hills School was built in the 1950’s, at a time when more than 20 percent of households were car-free. The future building, which will house more than double the current school population, is being built in a time that nearly that same percentage of households, 19 percent, owns 3 vehicles or more (see table 8.5 for the citation). While a car loop is included as a pragmatic piece of transportation design, will it be enough to keep some drivers from dropping off or picking up across 20th Avenue NE or in the bus zone? We cannot know for sure until we see it in action. However, if members of the SDAT have their way, children will be walking to this school in great numbers come 2017, with the opening of the new school.


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