With childhood obesity at an all-time high, many health advocates are calling for greater access to walkable schools as an important element of a comprehensive approach for addressing this epidemic. Children who can safely walk or bicycle to and from school can build physical activity into their daily routine. In 1969, about half (48 percent) of K-8th grade students walked or bicycled to school. By 2009, only 13 percent did so. Many factors, including schools’ locations, have led to this decrease in children walking and biking to and from school.
However, strategies for promoting walkable schools cannot be considered without taking into account a stark fact: high levels of neighborhood segregation in the United States leave many children from lower-income families in segregated schools, with often dire educational consequences. There have been varied approaches to increasing racial and income diversity in schools and many approaches to improving educational quality. In many cases, the strategies to increase school diversity or improve educational outcomes also increase the distance between students’ homes and the schools they attend, making it more challenging to create or maintain walkability.
Schools trying to achieve both priorities face a challenging question: Are “diversity” and “walkability” compatible? This summary document, drawn from a national dialogue among leaders in health and public education, with accompanying research, answers this question in the affirmative. This document also highlights some of the key obstacles and outlines the full range of factors that determine how and where schools are built, who attends which schools, and how patterns of population and settlement continue to reproduce inequality in communities across the country. Finally, it presents a preliminary agenda for tackling the challenges, listing three action steps for promoting diverse, walkable, high-quality schools for all children.
Nashville: The Challenge of Bridging Diversity and Walkability Goals
In 2009, Nashville, Tennessee, became an unintended focal point for the question of how to balance the need for walkable schools with the need for diverse, quality schools. These issues were brought into sharp focus when the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit (Spurlock & Fox v. School Board) against the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education for their proposed revisions to the school district’s plan for student assignments. The plan devised a new system of “neighborhood schools,” putting an end to the busing of children to schools farther from their homes to meet school racial integration targets. The lawsuit alleged, among other things, that in the new plan, students from lower-income families would be denied integrated learning environments.
At the same time, the City of Nashville had been planning numerous programs to address obesity and improve children’s health. Among them was a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program aimed at increasing physical activity through walking and bicycling to school. As local tensions rose in reaction to the lawsuit, Nashville’s Safe Routes to School program was postponed, and local leaders feared that promoting walking to school could somehow be associated with the new student assignment plan and what some critics saw as the potential resegregation of Nashville’s schools.
The Nashville episode, based in the painful history of racial segregation there, crystallized a broader set of questions relevant to the whole country. Since walkability requires students to live close enough to walk or bicycle to school, what are the factors that prohibit the creation of walkable schools that are racially and economically diverse? Where will community-centered schools fit into the landscape when they are countered by policies that send students well beyond their home communities? And, since student diversity has been shown to contribute to academic achievement and social cohesion, how can communities strive for racially diverse school populations and provide more children with opportunities for physical activity through walking and bicycling?
The Nashville episode crystallized questions relevant to the whole country. Since walkability requires students to live close enough to walk or bicycle to school, what are the factors that prohibit the creation of walkable schools that are racially and economically diverse? Where will community-centered schools fit when they are countered by policies that send students well beyond their home communities?
To start answering these questions, this paper next reviews why walkability is such an important component of the effort to reduce and prevent childhood obesity. Then, it examines the interconnected factors that determine where children go to school and how school enrollment patterns develop, and finally presents three action steps for creating diverse, walkable, high-quality schools for all children.
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