Planning and Community Health Research Center
The location, design and policies of schools and the environments around them greatly influence student health, parent involvement, community cohesion, transportation and food systems, and the open space and recreational amenities of a community.
Where schools once served as community centers, the trend in the last several decades has been for school districts to build fewer and larger schools on sites disconnected from the places where students live.
Today, students are less likely to walk or bike to school or receive physical and nutrition education during school hours. Childhood obesity (and associated chronic disease) is a significant and debilitating problem in many communities across the country. Overweight children are more likely to become overweight or obese adults and develop adult health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and osteoporosis. However, obesity and chronic disease are largely preventable through changes to diet and physical activity.
Because children spend a large portion of their time in school, research has identified schools as key settings for behavior change. Therefore, schools have the potential to play a crucial role in improving children's eating and exercise behaviors — to provide the skills, social support, and environmental reinforcement needed for children to adopt long-term healthy habits.
From programmatic efforts, such as safe routes to school and farm to school programs, to policy efforts, such as school food purchasing, transportation, and siting policies, planners play an important role in coordinating the goals, objectives and policies of school districts with that of local governments to create a common community agenda for the schools, people and communities they serve that considers the health of children and adolescents as well as the greater community.
In an effort to reconnect schools with the communities they serve, local governments and planners are working to:
- reduce the size of schools so they better fit into the neighborhoods
- encourage community involvement in school planning
- facilitate active transportation to and from school
- develop joint use agreements so that schools and communities can share resources and recreational space
- ultimately create schools that serve as the center of the community
The location of schools within a community impacts students travel behavior; opportunities for recreation; traffic congestion; community interaction, engagement and pride; property values of neighboring residences and businesses; student academic achievement; and public infrastructure costs.
Planners play an important role in connecting and increasing coordination between local governments and school districts and the community at large to address school siting decisions, minimum acreage standards, new construction and renovation policies, school maintenance, school transportation decisions, and financing concerns.