Research Review: How Neighborhood Design Affects Walking Patterns

Earlier this year, the journal Social Science & Medicine published an illuminating article on neighborhood design and its ability to facilitate walking among residents. In an ongoing study, Dr. Billie Giles-Corti and her team are examining the impact of urban planning on active living in Perth, which is the capital city of Western Australia and home to nearly 2 million people. The published findings offer significant evidence on the importance of using active design strategies and encouraging a refined mix of land uses in order to promote physical activity. The study is tracking over 1,400 participants who relocated to homes in 73 new housing developments across Perth, to examine how a change in neighborhood environment impacts walking patterns for both transportation and recreational purposes. The new developments were selected based on their level of adherence to the state government’s new design code, the “Liveable Neighborhoods Guidelines.” Over the course of the study, researchers plan to survey participants four times: once before relocation, and then at 12 months, 36 months, and 48 months later. The current article discusses results from the year one surveys.

Results show that the walking patterns of participants are highly dependent on their level of access to a mix of local destinations, such as storefronts, bus stops, and post offices. In other words, if residents have places to which they can walk, then they are more likely to walk. Further, although recreational walking increased, walking for transport in the new neighborhoods actually decreased. These results were not surprising to the study authors, who noted that 99% of participants gained increased access to public open spaces, whereas only 11% gained increased access to local service amenities.

Study authors also note that local policy decisions are likely influencing this preference for recreational walking over walking for daily transportation. Planning regulations in Perth require that developers allocate 10% of land in new developments to public open space. The developer receives further incentives if the open space is developed and maintained while the neighborhoods are in development. Unfortunately, similar policies are not in place to attract or incentivize the establishment of local business and services, which could explain why walking for transport-related purposes decreased. Chances are that participants had higher access to services prior to relocation, while living in older, more established communities.

In summary, the initial study results show that:

  • recreational walking increases with access to additional parks and open spaces.
  • walking for transportation is connected to the number of service destinations available.
  • local services, parks, and open spaces should be encouraged through local regulations to increase physical activity and generate positive impacts on public health.

The study, “The Influence of urban design on neighborhood walking following residential relocation: Longitudinal results from the RESIDE study,” can be purchased here.

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    Evidence shows that walking for recreational purposes is dependent on access to local amenities. Photo: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.