Written by Brian Fellows
The Active School Neighborhood Checklist (ASNC) is the newest way to assess the community value of a school. The checklist allows users to score any school site and its “feeder neighborhoods” based on how well they allow and encourage people to be mobile by foot or by bicycle.
Older and historic schools have a special value to the community. They often have well-documented benefits: economic, cultural, and increased home values. This new tool adds a new one: mobility and physical activity ‘propensity’ – the probability that kids have the chance of getting physical activity.
The checklist was born out of the federal Safe Routes To School program. The goal of SRTS is to make it safer and easier for children to walk and bicycle to school. As SRTS coordinators, one phenomenon we battle everyday is kids’ inability to walk to school – or anywhere – because it’s too far. We can solve many problems with SRTS strategies and competitive grant funding – such as pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure (i.e., sidewalks and bike lanes), law enforcement support, safety education, and fun events. But excessive distances are nearly unconquerable.
Once a school is built far away from the existing student body – or on the flip side, homes are built far from an existing school – there’s nothing we can do to physically shorten this insidious gap. This kind of school siting has helped contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has proclaimed.
The logic behind this new tool is that the built environment – streets, traffic, sidewalks, crossings – either can allow or prevent people from getting physical activity (e.g., walking or bicycling). The checklist quantifies the presence of things that make it safer and easier to be a pedestrian or a bicyclist. It also quantifies the lack of infrastructure, programs, and policies – both physical or other kinds of barriers.
For instance, did you know that people drive slower on narrow streets than they do on wider streets? Or that drivers will drive faster around corners that are ‘sweeping’ rather than ‘tight’? Or that cul-de-sacs create longer walking distances for everyone? Or that a school that fronts onto two streets likely will have less traffic than one that fronts onto only one? Together, all of these paint a picture of the neighborhood. Every neighborhood has its own picture: anything from a Van Gogh to a black-velvet Elvis.
School siting decisions have always been made with the primary criterion being land cost. The goal of creating the ASNC was to give communities and school siting professionals another tool for selecting new school sites, as well as to gauge the value of existing schools.
When a school is closed, a huge hole is often left in its place. This measurement tool gives us another way to judge whether or not a school should be closed; another way to ask the question: “Would building that new school out in the ‘burbs really solve all of our problems? Or would it just cause new problems?”
I invite you to try out the ASNC. If you’d like to follow the recommended process of building a multidisciplinary team, performing a walking site assessment (a “walkabout”), and then answering the ASNC questions, please feel free. However, if you haven’t built your teams yet, just use “place-holders” in place of actual team member names when the system prompts you to add the names.
- Go to www.activeschoolchecklist.com.
- Outside-of-Arizona users will need to click on “Not on this list?” and provide the information for the school you’d like to add.
- Click on “Submit request”. We’ll notify you when we’ve approved your request and you can begin your survey.
Brian Fellows is the Safe Routes To School Program Coordinator for the State of Arizona. He is also involved with the development of the STAR Community Sustainability Rating System.