Early care and early childhood education (ECE) programs play a fundamental role in fostering healthy communities and vibrant local economies. While the importance of these crucial services can often be overlooked or forgotten when times are “normal,” the COVID-19 pandemic quickly reminded us that these programs are essential to ensuring economies and communities not only thrive, but function in the first place. Additionally, as many communities across the state of North Carolina experience record levels of population growth, demand for early care programs is at an all time high. Providing affordable, accessible, high quality child care to every family is an important mission shared by planners, public health workers and local governments across the nation.
To deliver on this mission, local government professionals need to focus on more than just growing the number of early care programs available. It is equally important to consider where these programs are located. Early care facilities that are safely sited can help cultivate healthy, accessible and equitable communities that promote better access to opportunities and services. On the other hand, inappropriately siting early care facilities can have lasting detrimental impacts on the children who attend these programs as well as the communities in which they reside.
In North Carolina, nearly 220,000 children spend an average of over 36 hours a week at early care facilities. In general, children are more vulnerable to environmental toxins and contaminants than adults; younger children who attend early care programs often under five years old experience even higher vulnerability. Many of these children’s biological systems are still developing, and exposure to hazardous chemicals and other pollutants at this young age can have lifelong negative effects on development. One 2009 study of early care programs indicated that, after adjusting for the quality of care, environmental conditions were the most significant factor contributing to an achievement gap between high and low income children1. The safe siting of early care programs therefore has implications not only for healthy childhood development, but also equity, health and economic prosperity within our communities.
Early care sites are considered safe when they do not expose children to harmful contaminants at the site itself or at nearby sites. Unsafe siting, on the other hand, may expose children to contaminants in one of several ways, such as operating on sites that have a history of environmental contamination or next to land uses that are actively contaminating the environment. Fortunately, unsafe siting is preventable through good planning practices and careful consideration by local government officials.
Planners and other local government professionals play a critical role in safely siting early care facilities. Planning for environmental health is a priority shared by many professional planners, who often look for ways to enhance built environments to protect people from contaminants and mitigate the risk of exposure to adverse conditions. Local government officials also have the ability to weigh in on development siting decisions, whether during the permitting process for specific sites or through long range planning and policy development. Local government staff are therefore well suited to implement the safe siting of early care facilities and ensure their communities can reap the benefits of safe, accessible, high quality child care.
A variety of tools, resources and strategies exist for local planners and professionals who want to prioritize safe siting considerations in their decisions about where to locate early care programs. As the demand for early care programs continues to rise in North Carolina, it is increasingly important for practitioners to be aware of these resources and their implications for planning practice. One valuable resource is the Choose Safe Places program, administered by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS). Through Choose Safe Places, the NC DHHS works directly with child care providers to ensure early care facilities are located in areas free of harmful contaminants. The American Planning Association also maintains an online StoryMap that explores the connections between early care siting, planning practice and environmental health.
Safe Siting of Early Care Facilities Training & Resource Guide
To help local government professionals better understand proper early care siting, the NC DHHS partnered with Centralina to host virtual training sessions about the safe siting of early care facilities and the available resources and planning strategies (including model plan and code language) for siting early care and ECE facilities. Information was compiled from the presentations by Centralina, the American Planning Association and the NC Department of Health and Human Services.