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Back to school

A double-whammy low birthrate and rapidly aging population is proving a thorny issue. Future generations will struggle to provide a tax base capable of supporting levels of services that aging generations have come to expect. There is no easy answer, no silver bullet.

A small-scale contribution toward a rebalancing of the two issues may be at hand though.

Elementary schools in rural and semi-rural locations face falling enrollments and ensuing pressure to close, often by a merger process with a neighboring school. This in itself provokes controversy, but it is a harsh reality. At the same time, a lot of city dwellers are approaching retirement without many options available except a miserable life stuck in a lonely Seoul apartment. I say pair them up. Raze redundant public elementary schools in rural and semi-rural locations, and replace them with purpose-built, state-of-the-art semi-assisted living facilities for seniors.

Why stand by while the hearts of small communities are torn out? To be replaced by what? Mothballed schools? Art collectives? Indoor camping fads? That really means empty buildings slowly crumbling into derelict eyesores.

Regional governments need to identify schools at risk of closure and earmark them for redevelopment. Zoning bylaws may need changing to allow residential buildings where the school once stood, but that would be the easy part. The hard part would be finding the will to see what it could become - a heart transplant for struggling rural communities that have watched for years as urban drift has robbed them of their able-bodied youth and community services. Post offices have closed, local banks have shuttered, stores and other small businesses have followed, and small towns die.

But sites aren’t remote and usually enjoy reasonable existing infrastructure, including roads, drainage, utilities and telecoms.

State/private partnerships might be considered at regional level; regional officials offering the land in return for private companies shouldering the burden of building costs. This kind of redevelopment may go some way toward sustaining regional construction industries for the next 20 to 30 years. That means renewed career longevity in base and supporting industry sectors, a rejuvenation of out-of-city living and possibly a cost-effective solution to reasonable housing and lifestyles for retirees, with the added side effect of vacating city residences for young working families.

Employ cutting-edge eco-design to make structures both desirable and affordable. Install ramps for ease of access and fixtures for arthritic old bones to easily handle. Sunken bathtubs with steps and handrails, built-in closets and appliances, and pressure mats to alarm round-the-clock medical personnel in case of emergency.

Regional authorities can chime in with free-to-residents shuttles for the nearest facilities and to local hobby farms. Creative local banks can offer reverse annuity mortgages to assist movers, move them in and handle monthly accounts.

The opportunity to kill two birds with one stone doesn’t present itself often, so as low birthrates currently empty elementary schools, and so too in future middle and high schools, colleges and universities, those sites that are publicly owned must now be earmarked for redevelopment, they being prime real estate for semi-rural lifestyle retirees.

A quality of life fit for a lifetime devoted to family, career and community doesn’t have to involve a big and complicated national debate. Small-scale projects can help, too.

by Richard Hirst, Permanent resident of Korea and ESL professional currently residing in Seoul

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