Smart School Siting:
How School Locations Can Make Students Healthier & Communities Stronger

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Introduction - Smart School Siting

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Schools are a tremendous resource for our communities; they educate our children, provide a central hub for social interactions through community events, and connect people of different ages and walks of life.

We invest significant public resources in our schools, and their locations define our towns and cities for generations. Decisions about where schools are located can promote healthy children and community residents, or can hinder the achievement of health and community values.

This lesson will illustrate the concepts, issues, and implementation strategies related to smart school siting. By the end of the lesson participants will be able to:

Concept of Schools as Community Centers

Schools do not simply provide a place to educate our children; they can also anchor local neighborhoods, support better public health, create a cleaner environment, and offer additional amenities to the community.helping johnny.jpg

Such "community-centered schools" use existing infrastructure and buildings whenever possible, share spaces for educational and recreational activities with the community, fit in well with the neighborhood, and typically offer students an opportunity to walk or bike to school.

Also, a community that pursues smart school siting supports good health. By siting schools in locations that are easily accessible to children by foot or by bike, school locations can encourage greater amounts of physical activity as part of a daily routine. Community-centered schools can take on many uses after school hours, such as providing a convenient location for community meetings, athletic activities, and emergency centers. Furthermore, smart school siting can save taxpayer dollars by rehabilitating existing schools and by reducing transportation costs.

For example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in North Carolina pursued a policy of shared siting and use of public parks and school facilities. Such action greatly increased the value of recreational services offered to the community. These schools enjoy broad community support because their location, integrated with other land uses, was selected through an inclusive community-planning process and their facilities are used by residents of all ages.



Trends in School Siting

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Historically, the vast majority of American students have lived near their schools. In 1969, 87% of students lived within a mile of school. However, due to sprawling development patterns, high land prices, and fewer school locations, due to school consolidation, many schools across America have been constructed at the fringes of cities and suburban neighborhoods. This trend geographically disconnected many schools from their students and the neighborhoods they serve, leading to an increase in transportation costs, and a reduction in the physical activity by students to get to school.

As a result, by 2001 only 21% of students lived within one mile of their school, and only 13% of students walked or biked to school by 2009.

Smart school siting seeks to reverse this trend and return schools to the neighborhoods they serve, making them easily accessible to students and community members by foot or bike and encouraging the use of the school facilities by the community for after-school hours.

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Planning is essential to making sure school siting decisions support the educational success, physical health, and overall well-being of students and the community. Such planning must involve coordination and collaboration between school districts, local cities, and counties. Thus, successfully creating community-centered schools requires a focus on long term needs and on the actual characteristics of the school district, as reflected by statistics and projections about the community.

Since school siting decisions can often be driven by short-term financial projections that overlook the big picture, it is crucial to methodically engage in full-cost accounting which considers all the costs and benefits of different school sites. One frequently underexplored topic involves the health consequences of different sites for students and community members.

The following information delves into these issues in more depth.


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Collaborative Planning

In the past, it has not been common practice for districts to engage in long-term coordinated planning with the public and local government regarding school facilities. The lack of collaborative planning has led to many negative outcomes, such as schools with excess or insufficient capacity, schools located far from residences, and unanticipated transportation and utility infrastructure costs.Keene NH school.jpg

Coordinated planning among school districts, school boards, and local planning entities can help minimize conflicts among competing community goals and efficiently manage resources. For example, when school and local planners coordinate their efforts, newly constructed neighborhoods often have high street connectivity. Areas with high-connectivity have a variety of direct, efficient, and safe routes allowing people to reach their destinations, rather than the indirect routes and dead-end streets that characterize low-connectivity neighborhoods. Furthermore, Falb et al. (2007) found high street connectivity is associated with a higher percentage of students walking to school.

There are many groups that can and should be included in the discussions around school planning. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) School Siting Guidelines (2011) suggest including:

Coordinated planning can often lead to opportunities for schools and local jurisdictions to share facilities, as discussed on the next page.

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Shared Use


One of the principal advantages of smart school siting is that it can leverage the infrastructure of a neighborhood school to help improve the health outcomes of those who live in the vicinity of the school. School districts and local governments can work together to plan for joint use of facilities.

Joint use occurs when the facilities of a school are used outside of school hours for activities that improve physical health and build a community's social capital. Cities and states can take this one step further by co-locating parks and other recreational facilities next to schools, effectively increasing the resources in a given neighborhood for physical wellness.

In some places, joint use and co-location are a regular practice. New Hampshire communities and school districts often share athletic fields and library facilities, while parks and community recreational centers are often co-located in Seattle, Washington schools.

Coordinating the shared use of facilities can be assisted by implementing what is known as a joint use agreement between a school district and an agency, commonly the local parks and recreation agency. These agreements detail how use and responsibility for the facilities will be shared between the two agencies. There are many examples of joint use agreements in place throughout the country, and some state laws even require school districts open their facilities to community use.

There are several important considerations to bear in mind when considering a joint use agreement, including:

A joint use agreement can be tailored to address liability, safety, and maintenance issues, and give both sides clarity with respect to their shared obligations for the facilities.

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Main Issues When Planning: Long-Term, Data-Driven Planning


In making school siting and facilities determinations, it is crucial school districts and local governments engage in long-term planning based on data, not speculation. Such data includes projected student enrollment, demographics, residential density of children, anticipated development, and student transportation costs. This form of long-term, data-driven planning is essential to select school locations that maximize healthy environments for community members.

Why does data matter?  The University of California, Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools (2012) noted, "Research and data collection are important to provide the necessary feedback loops that validate what works and help disseminate lessons learned. These types of assessments will allow cities [and districts] to move beyond intuition and anecdotal evidence to data-driven policy decisions" (p. 23).

Two types of data are particularly crucial for school facilities planning: data about projected student enrollment, and residential density patterns.   Short and long-term planning should be based on a regular review of data regarding current and projected student enrollment, which may be affected by planned development projects and anticipated community growth or change.  

Districts can also compile maps that show the residential density of current and future students, with particular attention to the density of students within easy walking and bicycling distances - half-a-mile, one-mile, and two-miles of existing and proposed school sites. Furthermore, such maps can show the demographic distribution of students or residents by racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic status.

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There are many additional types of data relevant to smart school siting decisions. These include:

Proximity to parks, open space, and recreation facilities. What is the proximity of parks to residential and commercial areas? What percentage of the residential population is located within a quarter or half-mile of parks, open spaces, and active-recreational facilities? What are the parks-to-people ratio? Do these vary by neighborhood?

Overall level of physical activity. What percentage of the community meets the minimal recommended weekly activity levels? How do these rates differ in different neighborhoods?

Transportation network. How walkable is the jurisdiction? What percentage of roads have sidewalks on one or both sides of the street? Where are traffic safety issues prevalent?

Air quality/toxic contaminants. What is the quality of outdoor air? Are there sources of toxic contaminants (e.g., traffic, industry, dry cleaners)? What types of prior uses existed on current and potential school sites?

These are some of the categories of data that can be collected about a community to help make smart school siting decisions.


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Main Issues When Planning: Account for All Costs


Sometimes school districts consider only a few aspects of the cost of a given school site, leading them to make siting decisions that appear cost effective in the short-run, but create much larger costs in the long-run. As a result, it is important to make sure that the costs and benefits of different possible school locations are fully assessed before making a decision.

Officials should fully evaluate the direct and indirect costs of different school sites through a methodical process. One potential challenge arises when the funding for school construction and the surrounding infrastructure are derived from different sources.

Infrastructure costs. The costs of providing infrastructure such as streets and sewers are generally covered by the municipality; the district, state, and taxpayers pay to build and maintain school facilities; and health and travel costs are borne by families and the state.

Financing costs. Indirect costs, such as financing fees and costs for supportive infrastructure - new sewers, roads, transportation, or utilities - need to be counted along with direct costs of land acquisition, construction, equipment, and furnishings. Don't forget demolition costs, security expenses, or the cost of leasing "swing" space to house students temporarily.

Busing. According to the United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2007), Americans spend nearly $18 billion per year to bus 25 million elementary and secondary students to school, yet few communities fully assess their transportation costs before making siting decisions. For example, congestion from parents dropping children at school often leads communities to install traffic signals or add turn lanes near schools. These costs are significant, but are often not considered in school siting decisions.


Main Issues When Planning: Environmental Impact


Due to the sensitivity of children to pollutants, the need to address environmental conditions is of great importance when siting a school. Children, especially younger children, inhale and consume more of their surrounding environment in proportion to their body weight, as compared to adults (Moya et al., 2004).

Physiologically, children have underdeveloped immune and respiratory systems compared to adults, and such increases the risks they face from exposure to environmental pollution (American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health, 2003; World Health Organization, 2005).

In the School Siting Guidelines (2011), from the United States E.P.A., strategies are offered for assessing the environmental impacts of a potential school site. During a preliminary environmental review, the E.P.A. recommends for school officials to review the following elements:

After this initial review is completed, it is important that a more substantial environmental assessment be undertaken if any risks to children are uncovered. As a part of this process, it is also recommended that members of the public, particularly those whose children will be enrolled at the proposed site, be involved in the review.


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Main Issues When Planning: Health Impact Assessments


When considering and comparing potential school sites, it is important to take all potential health impacts, both good and bad, into account.

Evaluating the potential health impact of a school site can be completed through a health impact assessment (HIA) or another methodological analysis of health impacts. The National Research Council (2011) defined a health impact assessment as "a systematic process that uses an array of data sources and analytic methods, and considers input from stakeholders to determine the potential effects of a proposed policy, plan, program, or project on the health of a population and the distribution of those effects within the population. HIA provides recommendations on monitoring and managing those effects" (p. 46). Furthermore, Bhatia (2011), in Health Impact Assessment: A Guide for Practice, outlined major steps to conduct an HIA:

Health impacts to consider during this analysis include: the location's suitability for physical activity (Can students walk and bike to school?   Do streets have safe infrastructure for walking and biking?), air pollution and asthma levels, past or present toxic contamination of the site or nearby areas, and nearby sources of pollution or toxic contaminants (e.g. highways, factories, or pesticide applications).

The environment surrounding a potential school site determines whether or not the site will be suitable for a healthy learning environment. As the United States E.P.A. (2011) noted, contamination can affect both outdoor and indoor air quality of a school. In extreme cases, such contamination may even force the closure and abandonment of multi-million dollar facilities.


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Health impact assessments are usually voluntary, although some local and state laws support an evaluation of health impacts on community planning decisions. California's Health in All Policies Task Force is an example of local agencies and state law considering potential health impacts of community decisions, including school siting.


Preference for Renovation

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Often, school renovations mean confronting toxic substances, such as lead and asbestos, which may cause community members to become concerned about the process of remediation. However, remediation can be done safely, and such substances must be dealt with whether a building is renovated or demolished. Furthermore, according to award-winning architect Sean O'Donnell (2010), "With the proper investment, older school buildings are capable of meeting contemporary educational needs and when considered within a broader context of educational and societal goals, they [older school buildings] may even exceed the performance of a new green field school" (p. 15).

There are many reasons why renovating an existing school can be a better choice for the community than building a new facility. Three important considerations are highlighted below:

1. Location. Older schools typically offer superior locations. In a study of schools in Florida, Steiner, Crider, & Betancourt (2006) found a higher rate of walkability for schools built prior to 1950 and those built after 1996 (when the state started requiring school district and local planning agencies to coordinate land-use decisions). During these time periods, schools were built within or near residential areas, which gave residents multiple ways they could travel to school.

2. Materials. Older schools often contain higher quality materials (terrazzo floors, marble finishes, solid wood doors, etc.) than a district could possibly afford to replicate in a new facility.

3. Utilizing existing capital. Finally, an older and historic school building represents a significant expenditure of resources and labor that can continue to reap dividends long after construction. Careful renovation can reduce waste in our landfills while encouraging more biking and walking by students.


Constraints of State Law on Smart School Siting


State laws may constrain the ability of school districts to follow smart school siting best practices, and for that reason it is important to become familiar with state laws that may apply to school siting decisions.

For example, some states may require or encourage new construction rather than renovation of existing structures, even if it is more expensive in the long-run to build a new school.

Another potential pitfall involves what are known as "minimum acreage guidelines." In these cases, state law may require that a school have a minimum acreage "footprint," which can make it difficult to place schools in dense neighborhoods. For example, the Georgia Department of Education, Facilities Services Unit, outlined minimum usable acreage requirements for elementary through secondary education facilities. According to state guidelines, an elementary school siting location is required to have "five acres plus one acre for each 100 children in FTE" (Georgia Department of Education, 2012, p. 4).

The impact of these policies is clear. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), today almost 87% of students' trips to school are made by car, school bus, public transit or other modes of transportation; whereas, only 13% of trips are made by walking or bicycling.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2009), "children can engage in physical activity as a part of their daily lives, such as on their travel to school. Factors such as school location have played a significant role in the decreased rates of walking to school, and changes in policy may help to increase the number of children who are able to walk to school" (p. 1591).


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Diverse, Walkable Schools through School Siting and Assignment Policies




Smart school siting should plan for schools that both allow students to walk and bicycle, and further serves a student body that represents the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of the community. This kind of planning should ensure that school location and student attendance zones or assignment policies support walkability and diversity.

Decisions about attendance zones and student assignment policies involve a wide range of factors, and can provoke strong community reactions. School districts should use decisions about attendance zones and student assignment policies to promote their student's ability to walk or bicycle to school.

Both factors are likely to contribute to the diversity of the school, and further increase the likelihood students will be able to walk and bicycle to school; however, these two factors are very dependent on local circumstances. For example, many cities and towns have a central area that has more multi-family housing, more low-income residents, and a higher percentage of families of color. Creating a ring of smaller schools around the downtown area, with attendance zones that split up the downtown and include outer areas, is one approach under these circumstances to supporting diverse and walkable schools.



Provide Equitable Funding


Spending on school construction doubled from 1995 through 2004, with school districts spending more than $37 billion annually by 2002 on hard construction expenses (Building Educational Success Together, 2006). However, such spending has disproportionately benefited newer, wealthier neighborhoods (Vincent & Filardo, 2008).

Moreover, this investment in the suburban schools was typically not spent in constructing community-centered schools. Instead, funding went to schools located on remote sites, which indirectly led to another type of social inequity. Without such newly constructed schools being accessible by public transit, walking, or biking, suburban schools created substantial challenges for those without their own means of transportation.

Furthermore, these problems added onto larger issues of unequal facilities and resources across and within districts.

Communities can address issues of unequal school facilities by:

1. Ensuring adequacy of all school facilities;

2. Directing captial funding to sub-standard school facilities serving children from low-income familities; and

3. Ensuring full public participation in decision-making about school facility issues.


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Connecting Smart School Siting to Safe Routes to School


Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs are part of an international movement to change communities and promote children's health by getting kids to exercise while walking or bicycling to and from school. The programs encourage, teach, and lead children to walk and bicycle to and from school. At the same time, additional SRTS initiatives focus on school facilities infrastructure, such as physically improving streets and sidewalks, and increasing the safety of walking or bicycling to and from school.

SRTS programs help children, communities, and the environment in a variety of ways. As noted previously, these programs support positive health outcomes for children, as they encourage walking or bicycling to school. The National Center for Safe Routes to School (2010) noted no definitive correlation between students walking and bicycling to school and student health. However, research trends suggested a "positive relationship between active travel to school and higher levels of physical activity" (p. 2).

By adopting SRTS programs, schools can increase students' physical activity and readiness to learn without taking time away from existing school day activities or placing additional burdens on teachers (Sibley & Etnier, 2003; Safe Routes to SChool National Partnership, 2010; Active Living Research, 2009).

In addition, since fewer car trips mean lower greenhouse gas emissions, walking and bicycling to school reduces air pollution and helps the environment. According to the New Mexico Safe Routes to School Handbook (2008), "Ten to twenty-five percent of morning rush-hour traffic is attributable to families driving their children to school, so getting children walking and bicycling also has the advantage of reducing traffic congestion" (p.2) . In addition, children and families get to know each other as well as other neighbors encountered on the trip, increasing the feeling of community and social support in a neighborhood.


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How to Make Walking & Bicycling Feasible


Smart school siting encompasses improvements to the safety and convenience of travel by foot, bike, and public transportation near schools and on school property by providing safe infrastructure. For example, the Oregon Transportation & Growth Management Program recommended that bike racks should be placed near school entrances, pedestrian paths should be separated from automobile pick-up and drop-off zones, and that safety crossings and crossing guards should be provided.

Walking and biking to schools is only a feasible alternative if there is infrastructure in place that allows students to safely approach and leave school grounds. This includes consideration of several engineering factors, namely the design of streets and intersections, the timing of traffic lights, and sidewalk availability. One effective strategy for assessing and addressing infrastructure problems is to conduct a community "walk-a-bout" or walk audit of the proposed route to school. The National Center for Safe Routes to School offered a School Site Assessment for Traffic Safety model to assist school officials in their evaluation of school siting conditions. Parents, local transportation planners, and police can be invited to participate in the walk or bike ride, and use the opportunity to uncover infrastructure problems with a proposed route.

Crosswalks are an excellent example of the physical infrastructure around schools that may need to be upgraded in order to ensure that a safe route to school is created. A National Safe KIDS Campaign survey found that 90% of crosswalks within the vicinity of an elementary or middle school had at least one of four common hazards:

Addressing shortcomings such as these is essential to creating safe routes to walk or bicycle to school. After assessing the particular engineering needs for a route, community members can divide the infrastructure needs into short-term and long-term engineering projects. Short-term projects usually requiring little financing include: crosswalk designations and painting, stop sign installation, and altering traffic light timing. Long-term projects may include: sidewalk construction and reconstituting intersections. All of these needs can be incorporated into a SRTS program.


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Case Study: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina

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The old adage "make the most with what you have" could be the motto of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina. In 1995, the City of Charlotte and the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners endorsed the joint planning and joint use of their facilities in a resolution adopted by their governing boards (and re-confirmed in 2000). Since that date, Charlotte-Mecklenburg can point to many successes of their shared sites, including:

1. The construction of several joint library and school facilities. For example, a joint community library and technical high school capitalized on site availability and gave students access to more literature than normal and the branch library patrons had access to more technology.

2. The school district built several elementary, middle, and high schools on, or adjacent, to local park property, which allowed for reciprocal use of athletic facilities.

3. The construction of a school playing field on top of a new lightrail commuter parking garage offered a "green roof" on the parking deck. The dual-purpose property served as a playfield for the school and surrounding community, and further transformed useless real estate into an asset.

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Jonathan Wells, a Planning Manager with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department, highlighted the key to successful collboration and coordinattion between the community and school was in holding meetings on a regular basis. The frequent meetings encouraged communication among those responsible for the operation and funding of public facilities. The planning department brought together representatives from two dozen departments and agencies monthly to discuss working together on public facilities and infrastructure projects (schools, parks, roads, sewer, water, etc.) Along with nonprofit organizations, representatives from the school board, parks and recreation, library, police, and fire departments shared current facility needs and brainstormed possible collaborations. The forum has given decision-makers an opportunity to discuss capital plans, funding, and to highlight collaborative projects. 


Case Study: Billings, Montana


Despite controversey from parents, faculty, students, and community residents, the Billings, Montana school district closed three historic, walkable elementary schools a decade ago in favor of constructing a new school on the town's developing western edge, for a short term savings of $180,000 (Kuhlman, 2009).

In 2009, when the school district proposed further consolidation of school facilities, the political landscape had changed. In contrast to prior controversey, school board members supported the role school siting played in the decision of students to walk or bicycle to school. Interested stakeholders agreed with research which indicated students were more likely to walk or bike to school if they live within a mile of the facility (McDonald, 2007).

Furthermore, Billings School District Policy 9001 required an annual analysis of the city's demographics and use of that information when planning for schools. In light of the proposition to consolidate the district's school facilities, the board sought input from the public in its strategic planning process. The board formed a Planning and Development Committee with two school board members, two representatives from the district, and nine citizens from across the city.

The committee was charged with analyzing data in regard to siting decisions which would impact the district's transportation costs. The analysis revealed the core of Billings community had 353 children per square mile; whereas, the location of the proposed new school facilities had only 27.4 children per square mile.

Click here to view the committee report from Billings.

In 2012, the Billings school board received a federal grant from the United States E.P.A. to develop a cost calculator to ensure neighborhood vitality and walkability are considered during future siting discussions.



Case Study: Policy Changes Encourage More Community-Centered Schools in New Hampshire and New Mexico

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In 2009, New Hampshire State Senator Martha Fuller Clark introduced Senate Bill 59 to ensure the state's support for community-centered schools. Passed in 2010, the new state law required inter-agency collaboration and increased public participation for school planning. Furthermore, it required a feasibility analysis and demonstration of how school siting plans complied with local master plans, planning and zoning regulations, and the state's smart growth policy.

Like New Hampshire State Senator Fuller-Clark, Andre Larraoque, building standards coordinator for the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, also supported community-centered schools. In his position, Larroque recognized that the state's communities and school districts would benefit from a less prescriptive approach to school site acreage requirements.

In lieu of recommending a certain number of acres based on student size, New Mexico requests school districts to submit information about the planned curriculum and the desired learning environment when applying for state funding of school renovation or new construction projects (Kuhlman, 2009). In 2009, the site acreage guidelines were eliminated from the New Mexico Public School Adequacy Planning Guide and language was added about the viability of smaller sites.


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According to the United States Department of Transportation (2008), over 40 years ago almost half of all students walked or biked to school; whereas, now, only 13% of children do.

The biggest reason for this change is because today's schools are located too far from children's homes for walking or biking to be practical. In contrast to this data, school location can support student's health through increased physical activity. When school officials, families, and others understand the importance of school location, school siting decisions can increase the number of students that walk and bicycle to school, and use school playgrounds and athletic facilities for physical activity outside of school hours.

ACEF, ChangeLab Solutions, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation intend this lesson to be instructive with the concepts of smart school siting and the steps that are required to make such a reality. Coordination and collaboration between local planning agencies and school districts, data-driven planning, health impact assessments, and equitable funding are all key components of smart school siting.

For additional resources, review ChangeLab Solutions' Ten Fundamental Principles of Smart School Siting, and read the transcript of a live chat on school siting with ChangeLab Solutions' attorney Sara Zimmerman and other school siting experts.

ChangeLab Solutions is happy to collaborate with your state or community to tailor school siting policies to your particular needs. Contact us to find out how to put these tools to work for your community.

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