Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, communities living in cities need cleaner air to breathe and outdoor public space to be social yet physically distanced.
Recognition of these issues has led public health experts, architects and urban planners to discuss how to design cities to respond to the pandemic.
One idea put forward has been the establishment of “school streets”: closing roads outside schools to motor traffic during school drop-offs and pick-ups.
School streets often involve other local action, too. This includes promoting active travel, such as walking and cycling, to get to school, getting local people involved in citizen science projects to monitor air quality and putting on events to celebrate the road closure.
Our research focuses on public health and air pollution. We recently worked with Holt House Infant and Carterknowle Junior schools in Sheffield, as well as with Sheffield City Council, to pilot the first school street in the city. The Sheffield pilot provides an excellent example of the valuable role that school streets could play in our cities, especially during a pandemic.
Changing urban space
During the COVID-19 pandemic, school streets may have an important role because they change how urban space is used directly where people live. This could aid physical distancing, support walking and cycling, and protect children and their families from increases in car traffic and air pollution as lockdowns are lifted.
In fact, school streets have been part of some UK councils’ emergency COVID-19 plans. In London, Hackney council is developing ambitious plans to introduce 40 new school streets to rebuild and recover from COVID-19 in a greener and safer way.
For the school street pilot in Sheffield, a busy road next to the schools was closed at drop-off and pick-ups for one week in November 2019. This coincided with the annual Road Safety Week campaign, so the school also promoted walking, scooting and cycling to school. They arranged events to make use of the closed road, such as daily afternoon cycling or scooting between the two schools.
We evaluated the pilot together with the school community. Parents, children and residents were asked their views. Comments were monitored on social media. Parents organised traffic counts, and we worked with the Urban Flows Observatory at the University of Sheffield to monitor air quality – specifically particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide – in the school grounds.
These pollutants have been associated with a range of negative health effects for children and adults. They can cause breathing difficulties, lung cancer, strokes and heart attacks, and affect children’s lung development.