Location Matters: What School Siting Means for Children’s Health

By Sara Zimmerman

With California school districts facing $248 million in cuts for school bus services starting this month and obesity rates at epidemic levels, it’s more critical than ever for local leaders to pursue strategies that encourage students to walk or bike to school.

The elimination of funds for school buses is part of the package of cuts scheduled to go into effect next month to help offset the shortfall in state revenue. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone is slated to lose $38 million, a loss superintendent John Deasy called “catastrophic.”

The outcry from superintendents demonstrates school districts’ reliance on buses to get students to and from school each day, and points to the need for a return to more sustainable alternatives.

Forty years ago, nearly half of all students walked or biked to school. Now, only 13 percent do. We’ve built our cities and towns to make it hard for kids to walk to school: those decisions have health and fiscal consequences, and now our schools and kids are paying the price.

Why the change? One major factor is school siting, the decisions local school leaders make about where to build or rehabilitate schools. Over the past several decades, schools have increasingly been built on the outskirts of communities, too far from children’s homes for walking or biking to be practical. In 1969, about 45 percent of elementary school students lived one mile or less from school, and almost 90 percent of those children walked or biked to school. By 2001, only 24 percent of elementary school students lived within one mile of school.

School consolidation and closures are also important factors. The number of schools in the United States has fallen by 70 percent since the 1930s, despite dramatic increases in the number of children in schools. In rural communities, consolidation often means closing two centrally located schools and replacing them with a new school at the midpoint between two towns, near no one.

Busing kids to school is a costly commitment – approximately $17 billion a year nationwide. And the cost of transporting students to far-flung schools falls not only on schools but also on families, who accumulate significant costs in driving their children to school and attending school events.

Locating schools closer to where families live can ease transportation expenses and improve parental involvement while encouraging exercise – not only by making it easier for kids to walk and bike to school, but also by making it more convenient for families to use school fields, playgrounds and other recreational facilities after hours and on weekends and holidays, when school is closed.

To be sure, decisions about school siting are intertwined with another complex matter: the diversity of the student population. When it comes to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, few neighborhoods are well integrated or representative of the demographics of their community or school district as a whole. As a result, schools often end up highly segregated. In fact, since the late 1980s, schools have become increasingly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.

But schools and policymakers can take steps to support both walkability and diversity. Siting schools on the border of neighborhoods serving different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups can help. Attendance zones and assignment policies can be designed to promote both walkability and diversity, and schools can coordinate with local governments to encourage mixed-income housing near schools.

Some key considerations for smart school siting:

Engage in long-term, data-driven planning. School districts and local governments should coordinate planning based on data regarding current and projected student enrollment, demographics, anticipated future development, student transportation costs and trends, and more. To ensure community buy-in and better results, provide a major role for public input.

Make it feasible to share facilities. Students and the larger community can more easily share resources like libraries, gymnasiums, parks, and fields if the facilities are located near each other. More formal contracts or “joint use agreements” can spell out how use and responsibility can be allocated.

Emphasize equity. Take steps to ensure that inferior facilities do not disproportionately house students of color or low-income students, and evaluate the impact of school siting decisions from an equity standpoint, including assessing whether some groups of students bear a greater burden of lengthy trips to and from school.

Take health impacts into account. An informal health scan or formal health impact assessment (HIA) can help determine how safe and supportive a prospective school location will be for physical activity. It can point to air pollution and asthma levels, as well as nearby sources of pollution or toxic contaminants, such as highways, industrial facilities, or pesticide applications.

Support Safe Routes to School programs. These can include funding for safety improvements to sidewalks near schools, as well as organized “walking school buses” or “bicycle trains” in which adults supervise groups of children as they walk or bike to school together.

Making it easier for kids to walk or bike to school is more than an investment in our kids’ health – it’s crucial to building the long-term sustainability of our schools and communities. By working closely with local government and promoting more walkable schools, districts throughout California can make the most of scarce transportation funds while putting our kids on a healthier path.

Sara Zimmerman is a senior staff attorney at Public Health Law & Policy (www.phlpnet.org), a nonprofit research and training center based in Oakland, California.

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