Why Great Public Facilities Work Like Great Cities

The focus on access and movement found in the best urban planning should be a core part of any design.

Cities work best when they’re made for, and accessible to, everyone. The same goes for buildings, especially vital public spaces such as schools. Designing these facilities successfully requires planning that goes beyond exterior walls and interior detailing.

To make designs work, it’s crucial to prioritize navigation, interaction and community. Great public buildings aren’t just located in cities; they act as mini-cities themselves, creating spaces for interaction, exchange and learning.

Austin Independent School District’s forthcoming Northeast Middle School, designed by LPA, exemplifies how a building layout focused on movement, applying some of the best practices of urbanism, can turn a facility into a magnet for engagement. It provides a healthy environment, with a sustainable design intended to meet LEED Gold, and a focus on outdoor learning activities. But that’s not enough to meet the larger goals of creating a community, a living facility that will meet the needs of educators and students.

The school was envisioned as a community crossroads. It is set on a redeveloped, irregular lot outside a high-end, mixed-use planned community called Mueller, a redevelopment of the former municipal airport. The property itself was once the airport runway.

Great Facilities Like Great Cities2
Bike lanes, wide sidewalks and a large entryway help connect the campus to the larger community.

The school needed to connect students from different backgrounds and income levels, while functioning as a park and public asset for the surrounding neighborhood. To forge those connections, we started with the commute, much as a city planner might start the process. The school design was intentionally elongated in a way that can grab and receive the community from all the thoroughfares that surround it. Sited at the edge of the campus, the main building intentionally bumps up against the edge of the community to engage with the city.

A robust network of community bike lanes was extended to connect to the western edge of the school, separate from the bus lanes that meet the building’s north face. Trees were added to create a promenade-like entrance and shade the parking lot. Extra-wide sidewalks and pathways for pedestrians wrap around the site, and every entrance and mode of transportation draws students into an internal courtyard.

The design recognizes the importance of planning the campus like a city. Entryways don’t simply provide a way inside; they also offer a roadmap to a more welcoming space. The school site welcomes people traveling from different directions on foot or via different modes of transportation — including buses, bikes and carpools. Students are intentionally brought together into a central courtyard to start the day.

The central, singular meeting place creates a nexus for activity for the rest of the day. Designed in conjunction with Coleman Landscape Architects, the space is filled with benches, trees, an activity lawn and pathways. It will become a common ground — a central park — for everybody on campus, available for different kinds of activities and instruction.

The flow of students in the morning, which allows for interactions and integration, continues throughout the day as they circulate throughout the courtyard and classrooms. Elements of the facility — from the classrooms, with windows looking back toward the campus centerpiece, to the large entryway cutout on the west wall — all relate to this space, where students socialize between lessons.

That emphasis on circulation helps after hours, as well, when the community is drawn into the facility and the adjacent athletic fields. Gyms and performance halls, located on the first floor, host activities and performances by local groups, encouraged by the site’s traffic flow and large central gathering space.

We want our cities to be models of equality and opportunity, and, like cities, architecture needs to focus on access, movement and the flow into and within a facility. The lessons of cities and urban planning can help us create spaces that create a culture of connection within and turn static spaces into active centers.