In California, with escalating land prices and rapidly developing communities, school district officials often struggle to find land that is affordable. Districts have autonomy from local municipalities, and can override local land use zoning and utilize eminent domain-a stark but legal reality that can put the two planning processes in competition with one another rather than in compliment.
And, Vincent discovered, "efficient land use, walkability and neighborhood connections are not necessarily at the top of the agendas of school districts. Their responsibility is to provide a place where they have enough space—fields and rooms—to run their programs. The second [goal] is safety—they don't want a school on a fault line. In part, what we are trying to do is further educate both planners and educators on the importance of school siting choices for both school and community quality."
Vincent's case studies provide examples of how school district and local government officials in two communities are working together in making decisions about new schools. In San Diego, district and planning officials jointly decided to locate a new school in an area likely to include retail stores, housing and municipal service providers. In Emeryville, officials worked to make a new school the heart of a local redevelopment plan. Both exemplify the national "schools as centers of community" movement to create vibrant, healthy communities that benefit children, families, neighborhoods and the whole city.
"Such a vision," he writes, "necessitates... overcoming decades of distrust... and crafting a creative atmosphere that enables diverse stakeholders to come together and envision what could be."
As deputy director of the Center for Cities and Schools, Vincent strives to expand the work started in his dissertation by bringing together government officials, community-based organizations and school district staff. "What we have learned in the Bay Area and through statewide research is that there is a real desire for assistance at this level."
RWJF Perspective: Launched in 2000, Active Living Research (ALR) is a $31-million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, design of the built environment and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday lifestyles for all Americans. Over the past few years, the program has focused increasingly on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities where childhood obesity levels are highest and rising fastest.
ALR research teams are required to be transdisciplinary. ALR researchers represent more than 20 different disciplines (e.g., public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology, political science).
"In addition to building an evidence base for physical activity, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and a diverse network of active living researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.
ALR seeks to translate research findings rapidly into policy and practice change. Says Orleans: "For instance, if we find out that adding bike paths and sidewalks, or walk-to-school programs significantly increases physical activity, we want to get this information out to key decision- and policy-makers as quickly and effectively as possible, so they can start using it.
"The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that how active we are depends greatly on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity," says Orleans. "Increasing numbers of urban planners now recognize that community design is critical for population health."