Shaping the City of Tomorrow: What Gets Us Moving
How can we build communities that encourage a more active lifestyle? Researchers at Saint Louis University School of Public Health have received a $99,000 grant from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to answer that question as they study how the features of our physical environment affect our activity levels.
The researchers, led by Ross Brownson, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and director of the Prevention Research Center at Saint Louis University School of Public Health, will analyze how factors such as the quality of sidewalks, the presence of restaurants, safety from traffic and graffiti influence whether we walk or ride bikes.
“The primary aim of this project is to determine the most important features of the street-level environment that influence transportation and recreation activity patterns,” Brownson says.
Their findings could shape how the cities of tomorrow are designed, he says.
“By identifying specific features of the built environment that are important in influencing rates of physical activity, this study will contribute to a body of evidence for directing changes in local land use and transportation policies that shape the built environment.”
Planners will be able to use this type of research to plan communities that support physical activity, adds Christine Hoehner, a co-investigator at Saint Louis University School of Public Health.
“With the goal of creating environments that rely less on cars and encourage walking and bicycling, a growing number of cities throughout the United States are changing development codes, which regulate various aspects of how communities are built,” Hoehner says. “Based in part on our study, revised zoning and building codes might support a wider range of housing types and mixed use.”
In addition, the research likely will be valuable to state and local health departments that are working on plans to reduce obesity and increase physical activity levels, Brownson says.
The researchers are analyzing data from lower and higher income areas of St. Louis, a “low-walkable” community, and of Savannah, Ga., a “high-walkable” community. They have used telephone polls to gauge how residents perceive their neighborhoods. They also have visited those neighborhoods to collect objective data, such as the ratio of homes to non-residential destinations, the condition of sidewalks, the existence of bike lanes and the presence of litter and broken glass.
“As yet, it is unclear whether the objective measures of the environment – for instance, the actual number of crime incidents in a neighborhood – or people’s perceptions of their environment – for example, an individual’s feelings of safety from crime in his or her neighborhood – are more important in explaining physical activity,” Brownson says.
“This comprehensive assessment of diverse urban neighborhoods provides many avenues to examine the association between neighborhood environmental factors and physical activity behavior.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grantmaking in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to quality health care at reasonable cost; to improve the quality of care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the personal, social and economic harm caused by substance abuse – tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.
Saint Louis University School of Public Health is one of only 34 fully accredited schools of public health in the United States and the nation’s only School of Public Health sponsored by a Jesuit university.