The School as Catalyst: About the redefinition of schools in urban planning and the role they can play in rural contexts | PhD Proposal


Education is a powerful instrument of economic, political, cultural, scientific and social change. As the knowledge society entered the picture, being the successor of the industrial society, more and more European cities had recognized the great potential of their educational institutions in urban development as important elements of the urban landscape.

It is not a coincidence, but a reflection of today’s Zeitgeist, that the “Children Village” school in Brasil by Aleph Zero and Rosenbaum won the RIBA International Prize in 2018. Between the four selected buildings three were from educational nature: the Central European University – Phase 1 by O’Donnell + Tuomey, Toho Gakuen School of Music by Nikken Sekkei and the above mentioned Children Village.

Although these buildings satisfied different kind of programs in particular contexts, they all deliver a common discourse, highlighting the relationship between schools and the context they were built: “The school responds to the urban grain of surrounding houses.

The school, its surroundings and the city

The importance of the relationship between the schools and their context is not new. Educational facilities have been considered basic elements of urban planning in modern and contemporary urbanism approaches. The urbanist Clarence Perry, one of the main American contributions to modern urbanism in the twenties presented “The Neighborhood Unit”. For Perry, the neighborhood unit is an ordering scheme for communities composed of families with universal needs. According to his theory, neighborhoods can have aspects that differentiate them from each other, but, in general terms, are units that in the local scale have basically the same four functional elements: school, parks and playgrounds, local businesses and residential areas, whose distribution should be planned to guarantee efficient operation (see Perry, 1929).

The importance given by Perry to the school building was such that the area of the neighborhood unit was practically defined by the school: its size was determined by the population needed to maintain a primary school (around 6,100 inhabitants or about 1,250 families). Likewise, the school, complemented for a community center, a library and others community services, it should be in the center of the neighborhood, in the middle of parks and playgrounds (the streets and space public should be at least 40% of the area). The area was also established with reference to the maximum distance to walk on foot for children, in an approximate time of five minutes, estimated at a quarter of a mile (160 acres, taking as the center of the radio the same school).

Contemporary approaches as those presented by the pedagogue Jaume Trilla Bernet, in his article “Los alrededores de la escuela” (the surroundings of the school), underlines the possible influence of the school building in its environment, as well as the consideration of the immediate outer areas as effective scenario of students’ lives (see Trilla Bernet 2004).

Because of its collective character, the school building is a fundamental piece of urban and social development, which is why it must be conceived as part of a whole, the neighborhood, the city, the region.

The school as a catalyst

More and more communities have realized the power of schools in their area and have started to invest in their schools as it raises their “attractiveness”. In this context, school buildings are occupying a central place in urban design, as essential components of the city, not just as equipment to meet an educational demand, but also as engines of urban and social development. The most visible examples to improve the level of education provide spaces for the communities located in the vicinity of the school buildings. The double function of the building, as an establishment for education and other social services for the use of the community (libraries, multi-functional spaces, auditoriums, sports areas etc.), reshape schools to become drivers for community development. Similarly, the decision to build “open” school buildings brings new challenges to the educational system, transforming traditional forms of teaching and learning.

Examples of this were found in the case studies from Reallabor STADT-RAUM-BILDUNG, Alemannschule Wütoschingen (reference to the “Podiumdiscussion Abschlussveranstaltung” 2018, 19.10.18), die Waldparkschule in Heidelberg  and the Christliche Schule in Hegau.(see field research visit 2018).  A similar example is found in Finland, the Saunalahti School in Espo from Verstas Architects. The concept was “The school as a mediator of social cohesion.” The school is open during school hours and the rest of the day. There are no fences or gates, but the boundaries between the school and the rest of the neighborhood are fragile and deliberately undefined, so the whole community can access the open spaces and participate in the educational activity, according to the principle that every place is actually suitable for learning.

School buildings can be used to boost the development of certain areas, such as integral part of urban renewal processes, integral improvement of neighborhoods or even a fundamental part in the consolidation of new centralities in the urban peripheries.

In Bogota the examples contributed note only to the demarginalization of neighborhoods, but also to the improvement of the quality of life of the most disadvantaged communities.

The idea of consolidating open school buildings, integrated within the urban space, also seeks to fight against school dropout, encouraging a transformation of mindset, shifting from the school as a repressive space to a school as a territory of knowledge, socialization and meeting. In this manner the school building is recovering its character of central development urban equipment, consolidating itself as an instrument for cohesion and social inclusion.

In a South American context, for example in Colombia, we see projects that are turning the educative infrastructure into a motor of development and had already rendered positive results in several Colombian cities.

Several Colombian cities like Bogotá, Pereira, Medellin and other cities in the Department of Antioquia   are promoting processes of territorial development that start from the formulation, among others, of general guidelines about educational institutions, proposing schools as spaces that need to respond to much broader city criteria, taking into account the spatial and social characteristics.

The concept of  “school-centered community revitalization” is based on the “conviction that high-quality public education is an essential component of transforming distressed urban neighborhoods into healthy communities that sustain themselves over time” (Khadduri, Schwartz, and Turnham 2008, 1). The central role of school buildings in urban and social development is currently implicit in several Cities as an opportunity to improve the life standards of citizens and to guarantee conditions of equality and equity.

Projects like “Formar Ciudad: Obras con saldo Pedagógico” (1995-1997) (forming city: works with a pedagogical balance). In this case, the school architecture program tries to counteract early student desertion by offering quality architecture and spaces for the community. With different accents in the architectural programs, this Project has remained practically throughout two decades with very positive results in the social life.

In the article How Bogotá is Reinventing Library and School Design from gb&d magazine María Elvira Madriñán, widow of the famous Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona and a leader in the field herself, states that by designing schools where normally there was no access to education or to cultural spaces, they became cultural centers in the communities. Claiming that in the last several years, many schools have increasingly transformed into community centers on the weekends where locals can enjoy social events or take an art or other community class. “That has a major impact on the evolution of the community itself,” Madriñán says. An example of the power of transformation of educational buildings can be seen in the “Bibliored” project in Bogotá, Colombia. The enhancement of public libraries and public space in marginalized sectors have turned out to be instruments of civility. “They made four big libraries in parks in areas that used to be dangerous or for lower income people,” Madriñán says. It was a total change for the city. [1]

This becomes even more relevant in rural contexts since the school in a rural community must fulfill not just the role of a place for learning but a place for encounter, shelter and recreation of the community. This is because, in most cases, the school is the only “public” infrastructure.


The situation in Peru

In the last years the topic of educational infrastructure have been discussed and addressed by the Peruvian government more than ever, acknowledging the educational infrastructure gap, especially in rural areas in the Peruvian Amazon.

The Peruvian Amazon territory occupies more than half of the surface of the national territory, which can be compared to the total area of Chile [2] According to the 2013 National Education Infrastructure Census, more than 50% of schools in this territory must be renewed or require structural reinforcement. In addition, there is no information on the status of nearly 4000 schools that belong to the border areas which serve the most vulnerable population. These schools lack basic services and have the lowest learning rates nationwide [3]

Plan Selva is a large-scale public program about rebuilding hundreds of schools in isolated communities in the Peruvian Amazon. It is a modular system developed to be scalable, flexible and above all versatile to meet the needs of these educational centers located in places that are remote, difficult to access and with extreme climates. Being this region the most affected by the infrastructural educational gap, and by this the one with more potential, schools in the rural jungle region will be the focus of this research.


What is the impact of this project? What are the different roles the school can in this rural areas?

In the Amazon territory there is a high level of rurality. Nationwide just 22% of school sites belong to rural areas, in the jungle almost 47% are located in a rural area.

 “The priority of this system is education but, due to their complementary facilities, the Plan Selva schools, according to the considerations of each educational authority, could have a secondary use for the population of each place, these schools can become essential places for community life” says Elisabeth Añaños. [4]  

Although the project is still in progress and various efforts regarding the design have been done,
so far the question of the potential and impact of this project at a neighborhood/urban/regional scale has not been discussed.

At the end of 2018 the Peruvian government launched an international architecture competition to celebrate the Bicentennial Independence of Peru. The “Escuelas Bicentenario” project is the first international public competition for the design of Modular School Catalogs, which can be implemented in the five main bioclimatic zones of the country: coast, rainy coast, sierra, frost and jungle.

This year 2019 the minister of education Daniel Alfaro explained that 370 educational centers will be reconstructed, while another 553 will be renovated or expanded during 2020. The works will be in charge of the National Educational Infrastructure Program (Pronied).

By 2021, the Ministry of Education will build 2,803 Schools of the Bicentennial with an investment of 7,816 million soles that will benefit more than one million students throughout the country. Alfaro explained that the objective of the initiative is the standardized construction of educational institutions adapted to the different geographical and climatic realities that the country requires as part of the National Educational Infrastructure Plan by 2025. “This is a new way of addressing the issue of educational infrastructure that will allow more schools to be done in less time and with cost savings,” he said. He also indicated that each one of the proposals is adapted to the specific bioclimatic conditions of its zone and takes into account the sun, the temperature and the rains. As an example, he mentioned that the premises of the jungle will have wide and ventilated spaces while those of the frost zones will have innovative systems of passive heating. Likewise, he pointed out that the winning proposals propose a flexible system, with a structural module in which all the environments that a school currently needs can be fitted, whether pedagogical support or administrative.[5]

At the same time bottom-up approaches have also had a relevant impact in the communities. Groups as “Semillas”, an interdisciplinary association for sustainable development that focus on school building projects in rural amazon areas, has been working with local communities, municipalities, and the Local Educational Management Units. Since 2011 they already made nine projects including the construction of 6 schools and a research project about the schools in the peruvian amazon.

“The whole point of the school is lost if it functions on the fringe of the society which it is meant to serve. Most failures in education in developing countries have been due to the inability of the school

to adapt itself to the needs of the community. It is, therefore, by means of the community school that attempts are now being made to bridge the gap which has separated the school from the community

for such a long time.” (1969, Unesco institute for education)

Taking advantage of this Momentum in educational infrastructure interest and investment this research aims to consider the schools in rural areas as neuralgic points in socio-spatial development by exploring the power of transformation that educational spaces have to catalyze social progress. In a context of a developing country as Peru I find urgent and necessary to redefine and highlights the potential that this infrastructure has for the enhancement of the community.

This Proposal focuses on the roll that schools can play in a rural context as a catalyst for (settlement) change. By addressing the potential of Plan Selva and seeing schools as an opportunity instead of an expense or investment, this research aims to recognize schools as an essential element of urban planning.

[1] gb&d magazine, How Bogotá is Reinventing Library and School Design, by Laura Rote, gb&d Issue 50: May/June 2018,, 06.03.2019

[2] defined by the Law for the Promotion of Investment in the Amazon (Law No. 27037)

[3] Bienales de Arquitectura, Peru – Plan Selva 14072016

[4] Añaños, Elizabeth directed the team of architects that executed the plan through the National Program of Educational Infrastructure of the Ministry of Education in Paredes Laos, Jorge:  El Plan Selva: Aulas para armar, El Comercio. 15.05.2016 / 09:00 pm (translated)

[5] Estado Peruano, Minedu construirá 2.803 Escuelas del Bicentenario, (20 de febrero de 2019), Retrieved March 16, 2019, from

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