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Published: Monday, 8/11/2008

Schools, safety critical to urban revival

BY MATTHEW EISEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The American suburb has, for decades, been anchored by safe neighborhoods and good local schools.

For a large majority of families, those two factors dictate housing decisions and may dissuade many from ever leaving the comforts of suburbia and mainstream American life.

To get families back to [urban living], the first and most obvious thing is that urban school systems have to change, said Alan Plattus, director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop in New Haven, Conn. That s why the revival has been led by empty-nesters and professionals.

Various national statistics show some discrepancies in performance favoring suburban districts, but scant gaps in things like tobacco and alcohol use between the two areas suggest the perception of vast suburban superiority may not meet reality.

Yet after nearly two generations worth of self-induced urban exile, the city centers have become foreign to many Americans.

What s familiar to you is what you re going to perceive as home, said Michael Bongiorno, an architect for Design Group in Columbus. It is more difficult in a Midwestern city for someone to understand living in an urban setting.

Mr. Plattus said he believes regeneration of urban affinity is possible but warns it will require work to renew the city center aura.

It may not be better to live in suburbia with a swing set in the backyard, he said. A lot of it depends on affordability. A lot of families wouldn t mind being able to walk to the grocery store.

Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, said Americans do have the ability to turn around city-center school districts.

He said he considers changes in the past half century a significant aberration in history.

We ve been building family friendly cities for 5,500 years. We lost the ability to do that over the last 50 years, Mr. Leinberger said.

The urban expert also said a baby boom is happening right now in places such as Manhattan, Portland, Ore., Seattle, and Washington.

State Rep. Peter Ujvagi, a Toledoan who represents Ohio s 47th District, said Toledo Public Schools should be given more attention.

Toledo Public Schools has improved a great deal, but it s still under significant challenge, he said.

Many believe the turnaround will come in the form of a partnership between urban school districts and the parents of the students attending them.

According to a 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Education, a higher percentage of students who performed above average or excellent in school had parents who had attended a general school meeting or participated in fund-raising efforts as compared to students who performed average or below average.

Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan school of architecture and urban planning, said one way to make schools better is simply to have parents demanding better schools.

[Younger professionals] may slowly strengthen the inner-city schools much like their parents strengthened suburban schools, he said. The urban revival is not going to last without the schools getting better.

If the urban influx does occur, Toledo Public Schools seems poised to handle the growth.

The system s two biggest high schools, Scott and Waite, are more than half empty as a result of enrollment declines.

At its peak in 1931, Scott High School had 2,370 students, a far cry from the 1,000 or so who roam the halls today.

A welcoming, safe neighborhood also ranks well ahead of job, retail, and entertainment availability for many families.

Mr. Ujvagi said he regards Toledo s downtown as very safe but also underexposed.

You have to have events downtown for both people who live downtown and that will draw [people] from the suburbs, he said. And in the last few years, we ve really bombed on that.

Mr. Ujvagi, who has lived in Toledo since 1956, said the new arena under construction downtown will give the city an opportunity to entice suburban hermits.

The key part is that when they do come downtown it will be a positive experience, he said. Perception is absolutely critical. If people perceive something as good, they ll go back.

Contact Matthew Eisen at:meisen@theblade.comor 419-724-6077.



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