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Taking First Steps for “Stepping to School”

Complete street - S Carrollton loresSince the beginning of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant program, the KidsWalk Coalition, an initiative of the Prevention Research Center at Tulane University, knew it was important to prioritize their work around the city’s elementary and middle schools. What better way to increase children’s opportunities for bicycling and walking than by focusing on the places where they spend most of their day? As Matt Rufo, the HKHC project coordinator in New Orleans put it, “assessing the infrastructure around schools was front and center on the workplan when I first started.” Creating an assessment report on walking conditions around schools became a primary area of focus for their work. Initially, the partnership thought they only had the resources to assess 20 area schools, but with the help of four AmeriCorps volunteers provided by Communities in Schools and other partners, they evaluated all of the 63 public elementary and middle school campuses in Orleans Parish.

Making infrastructure Safer
For decades, many of the city’s street infrastructure, crosswalks and sidewalks have been neglected, leaving them in poor condition, cracked, uneven and in some cases, unwalkable. The hazards are compounded for children when the dangerous sidewalks force them to walk in the road, passed overgrown lots, empty structures and speeding automobiles. New Orleans’ schools still tend to be located in neighborhoods, and many children live near their schools. The partnership saw this as an excellent opportunity to improve the infrastructure around schools and address childhood obesity.

Although KidsWalk Coalition recognized all the factors to encourage New Orleans children to bike and walk, they focused specifically on measurements that were the easiest to impact. The Department of Public Works (DPW), a critical partner in this endeavor, could make the changes identified and help prioritize their work around schools. The four criteria the partnership used included sidewalk quality, crosswalk quality, quality of signage (specifically, school zone signage) and curb ramp conditions. “There are many ways to measure walkability and bikeability, but the criteria we chose was based on things DPW has jurisdiction over and therefore could change,” said Matt.

This process did not happen overnight. For the better part of a year (June 2010 to May 2011), partners and volunteers received training, surveyed the built environment and analyzed data for the sidewalks within a one-block radius of each of the 63 schools. For each school, the four criteria were put into a formula to create a walkability score for each school. For example, KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts received a walkability scored of 74%, which is a good score, identifying the need for more or improved curb ramps in the area while all other criteria scored favorably.

The end result, “Stepping to School: An Assessment of Neighborhood Walkability and Solutions for a Safer, Healthier New Orleans,” was more than just a narrowly defined assessment of the schools, but a comprehensive report that identifies high need areas, best practices, current City policies and implementable recommendations. The partnership presented the report before the City Council Transportation Committee, which has a supportive chair, Kristin Gisleson Palmer.

A Larger Conversation
They are hopeful that with such leadership the City can pass an ordinance and adopt improved street design standards. The report is just the beginning of a larger conversation for school officials, parents, neighborhood associations, elected officials and other city departments. Indirectly, it is a way for KidsWalk Coalition to forge new relationships with residents, policy makers and school officials. Matt said, “the hard part is getting their attention.” Showing their school on a map with a score associated with it, along with potential solutions, gives the community an idea of how the HKHC partnership can assist them, either through improving infrastructure, identifying funding opportunities or developing school policies and programs.

On August 4, 2011 the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for a Complete Streets ordinance, part of KidsWalk Coalition’s broader goals. This victory is certainly related to the work Kidswalk Coalition did with the “Stepping to School” report. As a next step, KidsWalk Coalition has begun the outreach process to engage community residents around the issues raised in the report. KidsWalk Coalition is also serving on a Sustainable Transportation Advisory Committee at the request of Councilmember Palmer to give additional guidance in order to create a formal Complete Streets policy for the Council’s consideration.

Working together, coalition partners, and concerned residents will continue to advocate for infrastructure changes in neighborhoods that lack opportunities for biking and walking. The report makes seven practical recommendations, and as Matt says, “We’ll check some of those off in the next year.” It is likely there are many more successes to come, all first steps to create more opportunities for the children of New Orleans to bike or walk to school and in their neighborhoods.

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August, 2011