Written by Renee Kuhlman
The short answer – absolutely.
Our nation's school districts are responsible for the education of almost 50 million public school students. Nearly all decisions about the use and location of school facilities are made by these local school districts, but the impact of their decisions goes far beyond the school and the education of its students.
A school's location has ripple effects on everything from the health of a local neighborhood to the health of its citizens. Consider this: moving a school to the outskirts of town typically means the loss of an older or historic school building, less public and private investment in a neighborhood, and lower property values. Not to mention the longer travel distances that increase the number of auto and bus trips, which in turn raise greenhouse gas emissions and busing costs.
But what about our kids? How are they affected by outskirts schools? Think of it this way – if a school is located miles and miles from the residents it serves, few students can walk or bike. With so much concern these days focused on childhood obesity, we cannot overlook this simple fact. The American Academy of Pediatrics certainly did not; in 2009, this esteemed group found that school location has “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.”
Those of us working to maintain vital, healthy neighborhoods believe that centrally-located schools – which once were the norm – are the way to go. That’s why we’ve developed recommendations that states and localities can adopt to encourage more sensible placement of schools.
Although I’m listed as the author of Helping Johnny Walk to School: Policy Recommendations for Community-Centered Schools, the publication is a team effort of 28 experts in the fields of education, architecture, transportation, health, and real estate. We’re confident that by reforming policy and practices as outlined in this report, states and localities can strengthen public schools and reduce carbon emissions and air pollution, preserve older neighborhoods and open space, and encourage healthier citizens and communities.
By making smart policy decisions today, we can sustain our communities for future generations. We can also take big steps (pun intended) in improving the health and quality of life of our children.
Renee Kuhlman is the director of special projects for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Center for State and Local Policy. The National Trust undertook the "Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities Through Smart Policy" project through a cooperative agreement with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.