The problem. In 1969, half of all students walked or bicycled to school. In 2001, just 15 percent of children did.
Diana Straughan has always been actively involved in the education of her two daughters, and a role model for active living.
As president of the parent–teachers association at Estes Hill Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C., she was already working on projects to promote walking to school. For example, to draw attention to the need for a crossing guard at a busy street, she organized a walking event. She also advocated, successfully, with the school governance committee and the local board of education for that crossing guard. Straughan's children, Samantha and Anna, who both attended Estes Hill Elementary School at the time, walked to school.
When Straughan was invited to become part of GO! Chapel Hill, it was an opportunity she couldn't pass up. GO! Chapel Hill is one of 25 community partnerships in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) national program Active Living by Design.
The project. Straughan started by participating in a Safe Routes to School workshop for Estes Hill Elementary School. As part of that workshop, she and other parents, school administrators, town staff and other community leaders did a walking assessment of the neighborhood. They identified improvements needed to make walking to school safer and more pleasant, including painting crosswalks, repairing or constructing sidewalks, trimming bushes that blocked vision, and installing several stop signs and a "no turn on red" sign.
With the Town of Chapel Hill as the lead agency in the partnership, these improvements were quickly made. "This not only benefited the walk to school, but made it easier for people to walk in general," said Straughan.
Next, Straughan joined the GO! Chapel Hill Partnership Advisory Committee, an official town board. The committee provides input on town plans and policies that could affect active living, such as capital improvements, ordinances, master plans and design guidelines. As of August 2009, she was vice chair.
Creating active routes to school. Focusing her energy on GO! Chapel Hill's Active Routes to School program, Straughan helped not only Estes Elementary School but also five other schools—Rashkis, Ephesus Road and Mary Scroggs elementary schools, and Phillips and Culbreth middle schools—improve their walking and biking environments and build community and school support for walking and biking to school.
"We wanted to make sure that the school grounds and the grounds beyond the schools were as safe as possible for kids to commute," she said.
Organizing other parents and students to get involved was easy, says Straughan. "So many people had ideas. By unifying, we were able to go to the proper organizations and channels, and I think we were heard better." Straughan's children pitched in too. They made signs and worked at information tables at events, and got their friends involved—which spurred their friends' parents to join the effort.
Through the Partnership Advisory Committee, Straughan worked with the town to implement improvements around the participating schools. The town installed crosswalks at street crossings and school entrances, stop signs, a sidewalk connection and a ramp that complies with guidelines under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The town also resurfaced an asphalt path and removed a damaged power pole that was blocking a sidewalk.
To promote walking to school, Active Routes to School started Walking Wednesdays, in which children who walked to school received a sticker or another prize. "I saw a lot of excitement in the kids who were part of Walking Wednesdays," said Straughan. "Often, their parents were with them and it created a fellowship."
According to Straughan, "Walking to school encourages kids to get out there and be active. It gets their bodies and brains going, and it gets them revved up."
RWJF perspective. RWJF looked at the growing evidence that individual behavior change efforts are most successful when they take place in a larger community and social context. As a result, the Active Living by Design program examined ways to combine individually oriented behavior change approaches with community-based strategies to create environments that are more conducive to physical activity.
Active Living by Design has harnessed community design and livable community initiatives as a vehicle and force for making communities more activity-friendly. It has created community-led change by working with local and national partners to build a culture of active living and healthy eating.
"The Active Living by Design communities faced the challenges of changing the built environment, re-thinking the design and land use policies that shape the environment, and, in some instances, re-inventing the practices of an entire community. They demonstrate how creativity, determination, vision and a willingness to see into the future can help make change happen," said Jamie Bussel, RWJF program officer.