Unlike the expansive school sites found in rural and suburban settings, the urban built environment presents as many opportunities as challenges. In today’s economic climate, urban schools are often built along highways, regional train lines or densely populated neighborhoods of commercial and residential use – often referred to as ‘found spaces’. Such realities tend to guide the focus of our practice as architects and designers, with the inherent challenge to approach issues impacting urban site and building design with creative solutions that can accommodate for things like;

  • Compact sites with aggressive changes in grade and tight building footprints
  • Increased traffic congestion mixed with concentrated pedestrian movement
  • Community consensus and value creation for the immediate neighborhood
  • Mitigation of noise levels and other environmental pollutants

Building and Site

When designing learning environments within the urban context, there are number of key considerations that come into play. Aside from the core programmatic goals of the school, the project must offer a series of workable strategies involving the potential for open social space, outdoor recreation, efficient parking and traffic management as well as provide safe and clearly defined pedestrian access.

KIPP Academy Boston in Mattapan was built directly abutting a busy commuter rail line, the design team strategically positioned the 4-story, 53,000-square-foot school to both mitigate the MBTA impact and knit the school into the surrounding urban fabric. The gymnasium and cafetorium are located next to the tracks to buffer the noise from key educational spaces.

Context, Scale and Aesthetic Sensitivity

Neighbors are important. The ability for the school to respond to the pre-existing urban fabric is a key component of the organizational framework and architectural expression. Most communities will expect to understand how the building’s design can balance the school’s identity with the character of the neighborhood, both in scale and aesthetic, to provide value to the community not only as an educational facility but a rich cultural asset.

By renovating and supplementing the original buildings and associated landscape at Brooke Mattapan Charter School, the resource that historically existed in the neighborhood is once again revitalized. The school adds a vibrant new thread to the history of the site, while the reemergence of the Lena Park Community Center at this location provides historic continuity and an anchor to the culture of the place.

Multi-Use Spaces and Evolutional Adaptation

Given the need to maximize internal program space and reduce the building’s overall footprint, flexible and multipurpose spaces often become a core component of the building’s design. Options can vary from dual-use assembly spaces like the gymnasium and dining commons to classrooms that can double as science rooms if needed. Other methods that offer long-term flexibility and allow the building to adapt and evolve overtime include; movable walls, flexible furnishings and ongoing advancements in technology.

The Commons at Fenway High is a multi-purpose cafeteria and auditorium (commonly called Cafetorium) that is the heart of the school. A full cooking kitchen supports an innovative “Chefs in School” program run by Project Bread that tests new recipes for the entire Boston Public School district. Outdoor learning gardens maintained by students grow produce for use in the kitchen helping to reinforce the goal of healthy eating.

Vertical Distribution

Projects with robust programmatic requirements contrained by limited site land area often require a vertical distribution of the school’s program spread over multiple floors. Urban schools with a vertical distribution model over 4 floors can be challenging to link together as a cohesive whole. Connective elements like an open stair centrally located within the building’s core allow for improved circulation and sight lines, informal interaction and the overall feeling of engagement amongst the students, faculty and administration on a daily basis.

For example, KIPP Academy Lynn is located on a challenging rocky hilltop site. The design features tiered levels at varying ceiling heights, creating the sense of separate spaces yet remains open and inviting. Additionally, due to the site topography, found space below the gymnasium enabled the school to phase construction. The school was able to quickly created four additional classrooms two years after the building was opened to meet increased demand. Such elements also help to strengthen the sense of community within the building.

School as Community Resource

Schools in urban settings typically perform best when they extend their daily use beyond the educational needs to offer resources to the entire community such as after hours recreation programs, adult education and other programs to support the whole family. Planning for after hours use is key. Large assembly spaces like the dining commons, auditorium and gymnasium can be isolated on the ground level to remain publicly accessible, while upper floor spaces remain secured and inaccessible during night and weekend activities and other non-school functions.

Brooke High School located on American Legion Highway in Mattapan is on a fast paced schedule to be built within one year. Once complete the school will not only serve the needs of its high-performing students but will offer state-of-the-art spaces to the local community including a 650-person auditorium, regulation size gymnasium and dining commons, all directly accessible off the ground floor.



Arrowstreet’s educational practice designs public and charter school learning environments in both suburban and urban settings. Charter school projects are often located in difficult urban settings to serve their target enrollment and meet budget constraints. They often end up on more challenging sites along public transportation lines or highways in densely populated neighborhoods that combine commercial and residential uses. As architects, we apply innovative thinking and creative problem-solving on firm budgets while working to incorporate technology and flexibility into the design to allow for the fast changing trends in 21st century learning.

Topics: education, academic, Charter Schools, K-12, Schools, urban, College, University