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Respiratory Health 2020

Improving air quality around schools to protect children

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Frances Buckingham

Campaign Volunteer, Mums for Lungs

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for school streets. Closing streets to traffic at school times and reallocating space to walking and cycling can help maintain physical distance amongst parents and children and improve air quality.

A reduction in air pollution is critical given the emerging evidence that poor air quality, already particularly harmful to young lungs, can worsen coronavirus symptoms in the most vulnerable.

Over the last few years, ‘School Streets’ have emerged as an important initiative for improving air quality and road safety around schools. Children and babies are particularly vulnerable to air pollution as their lungs are still growing and developing. Researchhas linked exposure to toxic air with a number of health conditions including low birth weight, abnormal lung growth, cot death and mental health problems in children and teenagers.

Making roads around schools pedestrian only

The idea of ‘School Streets’ is to transform the roads outside schools so that only pedestrians and cyclists can use them at school drop off and pick up times. At these times each day, the streets around schools are closed to vehicles. Signs are put up to inform drivers of the road closure, and barriers or cameras can be used to enforce it. Residents, local businesses, and blue badge holders can apply for an exemption.

Implementing the new initiative across the UK

Twenty London boroughs have successfully implemented School Streets with the greatest number in Islington and Hackney. In Cardiff, cars have been banned from streets outside five schools to improve road safety and air quality. A project in Levenshulme, Greater Manchester, aims to create an entire active neighbourhood that prioritises people over cars. This would create safer, healthier and more sociable streets where children and residents can walk or cycle to the schools and the suburb’s centre.

The new normal for schools after coronavirus

As children return to school following the coronavirus pandemic, there is an even more urgent need for school streets and cleaner air. Maintaining social distancing will require more space around schools with the risk of children or parents, especially at larger schools, needing to step into busy roads to avoid close contact.

Public transport operating at reduced capacity could lead to an increase in car use and a rapid rise in pollution levels around schools. Research by Global Action Plan finds that six out of ten parents are worried about increased levels of traffic when lockdown ends. Street space around schools needs to move away from motorists and towards walking and cycling as the safest and healthiest ways to travel.

New guidance from the government

The government has announced new statutory guidance, which includes School Streets as a measure to assist with reallocating road space safely as lockdown eases. The Mayor of London has also published Streetspace for London, which aims to create more space for walking and cycling. The plan goes so far as to recommend that “School Streets should be considered outside of all primary schools in London.”[ For the first time, clean air campaigners can say to schools and councils: the government wants you to do this.

Lockdown has helped us to see changes more clearly

Before the pandemic, School Streets were gaining momentum, but implementation can be slow and they are not without detractors. Lockdown, while a challenge for so many, has brought the benefits of cleaner air and quieter streets. Cycling and walking have taken up a new place in people’s lives and communities have flourished in the absence of traffic. We expect more people will want to retain this ‘cleaner air’ approach to life where they can – especially for their children.

Campaigning for cleaner air together

The cleaner air that has resulted from fewer cars on the roads is what Mums for Lungs has long been campaigning for. We have joined nine other NGOs to put pressure on councils to commit funding to School Streets. Every child in the country has the right to clean air and to be able to walk safely to school. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic and so many tragic deaths to make this happen.

Mums for Lungs was established in Brixton in 2017 when a group of mums on maternity leave became acutely aware of the toxic levels of air pollution on London’s streets. Support for the grassroots has grown rapidly and many more mums, dads and carers with children of all ages have joined. Two more branches in East Sheen and Walthamstow have been established. Mums for Lungs wants to make it as easy as possible for parents to make a difference and has created two templates for School Streets or a filtered street (shut to through traffic, but accessible to residents, pedestrians and cyclists) to download, adapt and send to the council. For more information join the Mums for Lungs School Streets Facebook group.

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