With its vibrant streets, navigable grid network, and a Walk Score of 87.6, New York City is often recognized as the most walkable city in the U.S. However, a recent study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, indicates that the benefits of walkability are not distributed equally across the city. The study draws upon a walkability index developed by Columbia University’s Built Environment and Health Research Group, which looks at how neighborhood design supports walking through features such as residential densities and land use mixes. It couples this analysis with data on actual physical activity levels, as tracked by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Study conclusions were in line with what urban planners have hypothesized for decades – neighborhoods with higher walkability scores show substantially higher levels of walking and physical activity. However, the study also showed that poorer neighborhoods are less conducive to walking than their wealthier counterparts.
Researchers studied the issue by comparing neighborhoods with similar walkability scores and varying income levels. They examined physical activity levels and GPS data showing location of the activity within the neighborhood, coupled with additional variables such as sidewalk width, access to parks, number of street trees, and car/pedestrian crash rates. Results showed that disparities in aesthetics and safety make poorer neighborhoods less attractive environments for walking, even if they have high densities and a good mix of land uses. According to the study, “Poor census tracts had significantly fewer street trees, landmarked buildings, clean streets, and sidewalk cafes, and higher rates of felony complaints, narcotics arrests, and vehicular crashes,” which significantly detract from a sense of walkability.
According to the Health Department’s data brief, study participants who live in neighborhoods with high walkability scores averaged 100 more minutes of physical activity per week than those living in low walkability neighborhoods. The Health Department estimates that this difference in activity level translates into around 500 fewer calories burned per week by individuals in low walkability neighborhoods, a difference that is large enough to impact rates of chronic diseases.
Study results show that policy and design decisions are critical. Emphasis must be placed on overall neighborhood conditions, such as aesthetics and safety, in order to have an impact on physical activity and health. Specific examples analyzed in this study include planting street trees, increasing frequency of trash pickup, and implementing traffic calming measures. Such measures can enhance neighborhood health outcomes, and reduce health disparities citywide.