By Leslie Meehan, Director of Healthy Communities for the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization
In the mid-20th Century, three out of four young Americans arrived at school by walking or biking. Our nation –as a matter of public policy– sited schools near the vicinities in which children actually lived, and provided sidewalks. American schools were interactive: serving as “the heart” of their surrounding neighborhoods, proudly embraced and supported by nearby residents—their athletic fields, playgrounds, auditoriums, and libraries open to communal use.
But suburban sprawl, driven by the rise of the automobile, has brought on an impractical, expensive, and unhealthy disconnect between neighborhoods and schools. As a result, fewer than 15 percent of children arrive at school by walking or biking today.
Constrained public-sector capital resources have precipitated a “big box” approach to education facilities’ planning: enormous schools situated on large tracts of land, drawing massive numbers of students from broad zones. School boards often evaluate only the upfront construction expenses, while the longer-term costs of poor school-siting policy, though rarely assessed, include: treatment of childhood overweight/obesity due to physical inactivity; traffic congestion (10-15 percent of a.m. peak-hour traffic volumes are attributable to kids being driven to school); toxic air quality around schools and pediatric asthma from cars idling in “hook-up” lines; fuel budget to power buses that clock hundreds of miles a day; and additional supporting infrastructure (new roads, utility extensions) for schools located out in the middle of greenfields.
But the foremost missed opportunity for education policy-makers is an effective way to advance academics, just by giving kids a fighting chance at walking or biking to school. As P.E. classes are cut to allow more instructional time to boost standardized test scores, we dismiss the cognitive proof that physical activity improves behavior, learning readiness and performance. We also ignore the emerging trend of declining creative talent in America’s future generations. A return to allowing young minds to tangibly discover and connect with the outdoors, through an explorative activity as simple as walking to school, can go a long way toward shoring up the creativity deficit.
The modern school-choice movement in public-education further undermines the feasibility of neighborhood-based schools. The burden of transportation to and from “choice” schools (charters, magnets, etc) typically falls to caregivers, which means commuting via private automobile. Many of these public-school alternatives are intended to help improve the academics of students who are struggling to perform at grade level. And students with lower levels of academic performance often come from families of lower financial means, so that for these families, the high cost of procuring and operating a private automobile can actually preclude low-income students from enrolling in charters or magnets.
It’s also a recent overriding theme in education-reform rhetoric that students will benefit if parents are engaged in their learning. For my own part, walking my son to school each day allows me to greet his teachers and briefly chat about any challenges he may be having with his lessons or behavior. These “check-ins,” with a key adult figure in his life, likely wouldn’t happen –certainly not with as much frequency– if we were shuttling him through the drop-off line in a private car.
Our Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has taken a leadership position in informing area education policy-makers about how collaborative, forward-thinking school-siting decisions can positively impact children’s health, happiness, and achievement. Some essential policy recommendations for school districts to consider are:
- Intergovernmental Collaboration: Coordinate decision-making with land-use planners and public-agency professionals in disciplines such as transportation/transit, health, historic preservation, parks, public works, and law enforcement. Examine ways to incentivize improved collaboration among these entities.
- Foster Greater Transparency and Public/Community Involvement in the Process: Make every possible effort to put school-siting decisions “in the sunshine.”
- Schools as Centers of Community: Select school locations that are accessible by means of non-motorized transportation, and/or in proximity to transit, where available.
- Require Non-Motorized Infrastructure near Schools: Cities and developers should be expected to help school districts program a connected network of sidewalks and bike lanes that students will need for safe trips to and from school.
Not every child plays an after school sport; not every child has access to a gym; not every child even has P.E. class anymore — but every child goes to school. To learn more about school-siting policy decisions, and how a more thoughtful approach might increase opportunities for youth to be physically active in your community, check out the Resources section at NashvilleMPO.org/Schools.
Leslie Meehan is the Director of Healthy Communities for the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. She specializes in policy, planning, and education considerations around the active modes of transportation (walking, biking, transit), with a focus on how the built environment and transportation affects human health. A member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and the Institute of Transportation Engineers, Meehan works closely with the public health sector and is an advisory committee member for the Tennessee Obesity Taskforce and its Eat Well, Play More Tennessee strategic 5-year plan for solving the obesity crisis in Tennessee. She also serves on the steering committee for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, and makes a concerted effort herself to frequently bicycle to work.