Lee’s study to chart children’s reactions
to improvements near elementary schools


Chanam Lee, assistant professor of urban planning at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, has secured a three-year, $252,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to research how patterns in children’s walking to school are affected by changes in a school’s surroundings.

Lee’s research project, “The ‘Whys’ and ‘Why Nots’ of Active Living: Barriers and Motivators among High Risk Children,” will track the changes in student walking patterns following sidewalk, street crossing, and other improvements around 11 elementary schools in the Austin Independent School District. The grant is from the foundation’s Active Living Research program.

“Most of the schools selected for the study are in lower income areas with a large minority population, and had already received the funding to make those environmental changes,” said Lee.

The schools, she said, received funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program, which provides funds for a variety of programs and projects designed to encourage children to safely walk or ride a bicycle to school.

Lee and her research team will conduct surveys and have students wear a wristwatch-type global positioning system unit to plot their walking patterns before, during, and after the improvements at their school.

“We’re going to be able to keep track of where students go as part of their daily or weekly routine, which route they take to get to school, and whether they walk, bike, or are driven to school,” she said.
In addition to unsafe crossings and poor sidewalk conditions, the barriers her study’s title refers to can also be a school district’s administrative line; the larger a school’s boundary area, the farther a potential student walker has to travel. Some schools, she said, have a highway running through their attendance areas.

Lee’s research team is also trying to determine how different or similar barriers and motivators are for different groups of children. Their research focuses on various high-risk groups based on race/acculturation, income, gender, health care access and transportation mobility. The team hopes to reveal underlying disparities in environmental conditions where high versus low risk children live, study and play.

Lee said walking to school can help young people establish a lifelong habit of active and healthy lifestyles, but that current environmental conditions around home and school often are not safe or attractive for walking. Lee said her research recognizes that many school-aged children are exposed to health and safety risks, demonstrated by high rates of obesity, asthma, and injuries from crashes.

“Another component of the study is what we call virtual experiments, using photo simulation,” said Lee.

Subjects will be shown initial images of streets, playgrounds and parks, then subsequent images with different environmental features such as more trees, more benches, more lighting, and different design features.

“Since we are trying to identify potential interventions, we’re focusing on something that’s easy to change,” said Lee.

The topic is of interest to Lee because of her belief that the design of the built environment is related to the health of people and the environment.

“I’m tackling two very important issues in our society, the sedentary lifestyle and automobile dependency, both of which are devastating for humans and the environment,” said Lee. “Our addiction to the automobile, a major reason why we don’t move our bodies enough, is to blame for many environmental problems that we currently face, such as air pollution, global warming and energy consumption, to name a few. Among the many ways to address these problems, I am interested in approaching it from the way we plan, design and build our cities and communities.”

Lee’s research team includes Dan Sui, professor of geography and a Faculty Fellow at the College of Architecture’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, Xuemei Zhu, assistant professor of architecture, and James Varni, professor of landscape architecture and urban planning and pediatrics.

The mission of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is funding the research, is to contribute to the improvement of health and health care of Americans. For more information about the foundation, visit www.rwjf.org.

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