In 2008 and 2009 we managed a Safe Routes to School project at five lower income schools around the country, launching and growing Safe Routes to School programs in those five schools for two years. In suburban Atlanta our work was going really well – we established walking school buses, got bicycle and pedestrian safety courses taught in the school, ran promotional programs and got some traffic calming work done on the street in front of the school. Then the school district decided to consolidate and close this school…game over!
Now the students were to attend a school two miles away, crossing two major arterials. Either parents would now drive their kids, or the district would spend a lot of money busing kids and dealing with what was the only neighborhood ‘anchor’, their neighborhood elementary school. Perhaps we could have sponsored a “remote drop off” program or tried to get a traffic safety curriculum into the new school? But the bigger questions are: Would consolidation actually save money? Was this move the best thing for this neighborhood? Would the district and kids lives benefit overall in the long run? Those questions are hard to answer. However, if there had been a local group of people advocating for what we call the “community-centered school”, and making sure that the school district was looking at the big picture, and that the county and residents were more involved in the process and pushing local government agencies to work together, the outcome could have been quite different.
We call it school siting: making sure that schools are located in the neighborhoods where kids actually live, because it is hard to walk to school eight miles! School siting is a critical element to long term Safe Routes to School efforts and indeed the physical, social and economic health of the entire community.
There is now a growing body of policy models, case studies and recommendations on this topic, and I have included links to a few of the best and most recent below. We are building a library of resources on this and many other topics on our website, to be launched in May. If you are a Safe Routes to School champion, an agency staffer, or a parent or concerned citizen, learn about school siting, and consider this policy objective in your efforts!
- The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s report Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School helped to spark national attention to the issue of school siting.
- The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Helping Johnny Walk to School project is the update to Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School. This project is funded through a cooperative agreement with EPA and the Jesse Ball duPont Fund.
- The EPA report Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting, released by the EPA on October 8, 2003, was the first study to empirically examine the relationship between school locations, the built environment around schools, how kids get to school and the impact on air emissions of those travel choices.
- Smart Growth America features several resources on building smart schools, including school siting:http://smartgrowthamerica.org/children.html. They also feature a Smart Schools Initiative:http://www.smartgrowthschools.org/about.html
- The National Policy and Legal Analysis Network recently released their Smart School Siting: How School Locations Can Make Students Healthier and Communities Stronger. This and other resources on Safe Routes to School and Joint Use (the shared use of schools and other facilities for physical activity)are available for free download.
- The State of Oregon has an excellent school siting handbook – Planning for Schools and Livable Communities: The Oregon School Siting Handbook, which can serve as a model for other states.