We don’t seem to balk at schools in caves , schools in subterranean shelters  or even schools floating on water, but the mention of schools in the sky… well hold on a minute. That’s just crazy. Is it? Not when you take a good, hard look at the truth. Our city is running out of space. Just like most of our urban environment, land is a precious commodity and we look to build “up” not “out.” It’s starting to appear that it’s no different for urban schooling than it is for housing. Urban populations are growing, and space for land just isn’t. It’s  predicted that over the next ten years, as early as 2024 some believe, the Toronto District School Board could be jumping on the “vertical school” bandwagon –already very prevalent in other areas of the world such as Singapore and New York. In New York, developers can even get tax breaks or more density when they incorporate a school into a new building. But to us, the concept is new. We’re still young.

But how the thought of it gets me giddy. The thought of taking an elevator down to drop off my kids at school and then heading to work, would save me at least two hours a day. A precious 120 minutes. Time. The finite resource that we all have to contemplate and determine what’s worthy and what’s wasteful enough to warrant it.  And while this may appear to be a biased view, I have to argue that it’s not just me – we have a generation of young people actively rejecting sprawl for either personal (think logistics) or environmental (think driving to and from) reasons, that are actually salivating over  and actively in pursuit of mixed-use family-friendly urban communities that meet their lifestyle needs.

We all know that being situated in a prime school zone in Toronto, particularly in area with a high density of students, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be accepted into the public school. Most downtown schools are located on restricted sites and land with no room to grow. Some have considered satellite campuses in mixed use environments with buildings, either commercial or residential in the early stages of development  as one potential solution.

When it comes to condos, the most common vision seems to be working at the earliest stages, before the design process, very closely with the developer and designating a couple of floors, often in the podium (aka the lower floors) for the schooling portion. The podiums are often used for grocery stores and other retail space, trying to bring a level of convenience to the residents. Well, what about convenience for families with school age children? Can you think of a better one? Other ideas previously discussed to addresss similar human needs are health centres, libraries, and community centres). In fact, some of our communities have added daycares to the amenity space and to this day, have one year wait lists to get into by local residents. Other developers are doing the same to meet the rising demand for family services. And for those who immediately frighten at the thought of co-mingling the two, they  mandate separate entrances and fenced, designated areas for outdoor use.

Dedicating this amount of square footage could allow for a school in its entirety, never mind  a satellite campus be accommodated. An example that often comes to mind when thinking of connecting schools and residential highrise is Tridel’s own Republic, connected to North Toronto Collegiate Insitute. The reason this is different than what’s proposed moving forward is that in this case, the property belonged to the school, as is always the case with the school board. But just because it’s never been done, doesn’t mean that it can’t.

Check out some examples that will make you want to go back in time.

GEMS world academy in Chicago. 322,000+ square feet of green school – two buildings with shared facilities, in a bright and spacious campus that’s won an abundance of awards and spotlighted in Architectural Record. Why wouldn’t they? Towers are connected with multi storey bridges, topped with green space and sports fields. The facilities are also open to the public during non-school hours.


Chicago is also home to another landmark school – William Jones College Preparatory School, complete with classrooms on the fourth and fifth floors; lunchroom, auditorium and library on the lower and the swimming pool and gymnasium on the upper stories.

Prep 1

Prep 2

New York also has highrise schools as a norm for many of its residents.

Spruce Street School – NYC – four storey base of 76 storey apartment building.

Source: wirednewyork.com

New York is also home to Beekman Hill Elementary School – with a rooftop playground.


As  always, there are arguments for and against this type of building design. This article does a good job highlighting most of them, but the ones I find most persuasive (both pros and cons) are the following,

  • Single family housing is unaffordable and increasingly, families are moving into vertical communities. This coupled with the reality of the city’s wait lists for daycares results in a no-brainer.
  • Investors typically look to purchase smaller units – a community with a school in its base would likely correlate larger family size suites above that may be more difficult to rent.
  • Single households are the fastest growing segment of housing market. A school may not be in their immediate needs (as they have delayed traditional marriage & kids timeline) and they may prefer retail or greens pace in their amenity space.
  • Some academics are concerned about potential health impacts. Will there be enough physical exercise and exposure to the outdoors, natural environment?  If not, will there be an increase in screen time?

But in spite for the disproportionate balance of reasons people will argue against this type of infrastructure in our cities, the concept still seems to be gaining momentum.

Australia already has “committed” to vertical schools and they’ve started sprouting in Sydney and Western Australia. Have a look at the first, opened in Perth’s CBD. ANd although its first school is private, the Government committed over $100 million to build four more public schools and is considering it to be the future state school system.

Another well known school – St George’s – moved from Perth’s suburbs to a five storey urban setting and is what the Principal believes to be the school of the future. It was an easy decision, since Perth has one of Australia’s the highest office vacancy rates. They also hope it attracts more students from overseas, since the environment is more similar to that from their homeland, in a dense, highly populated neighbourhood. It’s hard to think of a better court surface for a game of hoops than a rooftop. There’s something magical about a periphery of a city skyline.

rooftop bball
Source: abc.net.au

If you talk to people who’ve lived it, they can give you a pretty clear description on the experience. One native New Yorker, who’s done all of his education in highrise institutions comments that”The first time someone went up the Eiffel Tower and looked down they got to see Paris differently and it’s the same thing here, you’ll experience a whole world you would never experience if you stayed in your suburb.” He also adds that the commute up and down the staircase to and from classes, keeps you very active throughout the day. But again – when this is all you ever know – it’s your normal. For the rest of us – it’s new, it’s change. And we all know where human nature sits in terms of both of these. Resistance. It requires a certain level of comfort in order to move ahead.

The hope is that we start studying this environment now, so that in ten years time we can make an educated decision on whether or not they’re a viable solution.  Currently, they haven’t been around long enough to show their impact.

My prediction as it stands however, is that our children’s children will not have the same stereotyped image of school as we do – often a dilapidated two storey structure deprived of much needed indoor and outdoor amenity space. Like record players and answering machines, they will be a thing of the past. In its place will be the image of a sleek urban structure, a modern facility with all of the infrastructure they need, with a sufficient balance of technology and nature, thoughtfully designed.

In fact, according to many, schooling is merely a part of the highrise lifespan. It’s predicted that the future will have many of us that not only grow up, get educated and work in a highrise environment,  yet also that we may grow our food supply vertically and, to take it a step further as they have in Japan, we may even be laid to rest vertically. Yes… highrise cemetaries. Now there’s something worth balking about.

Feature Image Source: abc.net.au

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