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Healthier Cities? Why Not Start with Schools?

Clean Cities Entornos escolares
Photo: Òscar Giralt / Barcelona City Council - Pacified environment around the Barcelona School and the Escola Bressol Municipal Can Novell, Barcelona.

ISGlobal and the Clean Cities Campaign launch a school environment campaign to help children breathe cleaner air.


In Spain and other European countries, until a few decades ago, most children in towns and cities walked or cycled to their schools and used the streets for play, unaccompanied by adults. Today, their autonomy has been drastically reduced by an urban model that prioritizes private vehicle mobility. This has led to less public space to play and move around independently, and fewer children walking to school and playing in the streets, less physical activity and more exposure to the harmful emissions from motorized vehicles.

Overall this translates into increased exposure to air pollution, traffic noise, heat, and lack of green public spaces. This situation leads to harmful health effects that negatively impact children’s physical and mental development in both the short and long term, such as a higher risk of having asthma and other respiratory diseases.



Children are a vulnerable group that are often overlooked in policy programming. And although the “health argument” is not clearly included within most climate and air pollution dialogues, despite the well-established evidence, children’s health can be a powerful entry point to frame these discussions. Moreover, school environments can be an important entry point for change in communities.

Goal: healthier and safer cities

In response, ISGlobal joined the Clean Cities Campaign and identified a strategic opportunity to promote healthy and safe school environments, with the main goal to integrate scientific evidence into advocacy efforts, and create an advocacy campaign, the #SchoolStreets or #escuelasquequeremos campaign. 



The Clean Cities Campaign is an international initiative which works with a network of over 70 NGOs and campaigning grassroots groups across Europe to shift the narrative away from acceptance of the dominance of the car in our urban spaces, to a vision of a healthier, safer cities of the future, with cleaner air. We aimed to consolidate and translate the scientific evidence related to air pollution, school environments and children’s health, presenting clear health arguments to promote change in urban planning and transport policies around schools.

Pollution harms children

Our synthesis of the latest health evidence around school environments, air pollution and other environmental exposures on children’s and adolescents’ development shows that air pollution exposure:

  • Affects children’s and adolescents’ cognitive development, worsens their mental health, and increases inattention and behavioral problems.
  • Increases their risk of suffering respiratory infections and diseases, such as asthma and pneumonia.
  • Is also linked to hypertension, high blood pressure and obesity during childhood.
  • Traffic noise exposure can lead to attention problems and behavioral issues while exposure to extreme temperatures can result in increased respiratory infections and decreased levels of physical activity.


Strategies to improve school environments

However, there are solutions and many ways which we can improve school environments and promote children's well being. The evidence supports that:

It is a public health priority to reduce children’s exposure to pollutants and increase green and natural spaces in urban settings to ensure cities are health-promoting environments for children now and future generations. Considering these health effects in public policy is crucial, as the school is where children spend much of their day and receive a large share (more than 20%) of their air pollution exposure.



Ensuring good air quality around schools could be an effective driver for many environmental and health benefits in communities. This includes policies that would lead to more ambitious LEZs, traffic pacification around or near schools, while supporting active mobility. Connecting the health argument more explicitly with other urban and climate agendas can add additional weight to the current discussions about the need to reduce traffic, encourage decarbonisation through electrification and improve air quality.

The campaign, a case for transforming school environments

This evidence has been translated into an international public advocacy campaign to promote the transformation of school environments and school streets. The social media campaign has been launched in Spanish, Catalan and English (and available for translation into other languages), with visual messages and interventions. Overall, this campaign provides a strong argument for cities to urgently respond to the burden of air pollution and inadequate school environments.



ISGlobal also has been supporting the Seminario de Movilidad e Infancia (Mobility and Childhood Seminar), a Spanish working group made up of professionals in urban planning, education, and other sectors, involved in the development of policies and programs aimed at promoting the active, safe, and autonomous mobility of children, as well as defending their rights. A collaboration between the Seminar and ISGlobal created the “Entornos Escolares Seguros y Saludables” website, which promotes the transformation of school environments and active and safe mobility, with a wide variety of resources. We encourage City Councils and citizens to have a look and use the tools available.

Overall, we hope to initiate changes in existing policy and urban and mobility planning to promote responsible environmental policies for the health of children and adolescents. By bringing health evidence to advocacy efforts, we can make meaningful changes that could benefit generations to come.

Infographics of the #SchoolStreets campaign