Presentation at the 2014 Active Living Research Annual Conference.
Background and Purpose
Automobile-oriented developments have become more and more dominant in many parts of the world. Such communities often ignore needs of pedestrians, and may compromise residents’ physical and social health. There is now a substantial body of evidence that alternative, walkable developments (with mixed land uses, higher density, connected street networks, rich physical activity resources, and pedestrian-friendly designs) are associated with increased physical activities among residents. Limited studies also suggest that walkable communities may promote social health by encouraging outdoor activities, and thereby, facilitating social interactions and increasing neighborhood cohesion. However, most previous studies are cross-sectional in nature and intervention studies are scarce. It is unclear whether moving into walkable communities really increases people's physical and/or social activities, and more importantly, if yes, how such changes take place. This research addresses these knowledge gaps by conducting a pre-post study of residents moving into a walkable community.
Mueller is a LEED-ND certified, mixed-use community in Austin, Texas, designed to house 10,000 residents and 10,000 employees. Developed based on principles of LEED-ND and New Urbanism, Mueller features activity-friendly characteristics such as high density, mixed land uses, well-connected street networks with sidewalks, and rich and diverse natural resources and open spaces. As of May 2013, Mueller has about 40% of its property developed, with about 3,500 employees and about 900 single family households.
This intervention evaluation study examines (1) if residents increased their physical activities and social interactions and cohesion after moving to Mueller, and (2) if yes, how environmental changes influenced such behavior changes. A conceptual framework was developed for the hypothesized mechanisms of such impacts: (1) the increase in community walkability promotes residents’ physical and social activities both directly and indirectly (by improving relevant personal attitudes and social support—the mediators), and (2) the resulting increases in physical activities and social interactions and cohesion mutually reinforce each other.
Focus groups and online surveys were conducted with Mueller residents in 2013 to inquire about their physical and social activities before and after the move, as well as personal, social, and physical environmental factors that may have an impact on these behaviors. Content analysis was used to analyze the focus group data. For survey data, t-tests were used to examine the pre-post move differences; structural equation models (SEM) were used to examine the complex mechanisms for behavior changes. Currently, this ongoing study has completed one focus group (n=13) and collected 154 valid survey responses. By December 2013, more focus groups will be conducted and more survey responses will be collected.
A preliminary analysis was conducted for current survey responses. Both adults and children had significant increases in their physical activities. For adults, time spent on walking increased by 40 minutes/week, while time spent on traveling in a car decreased by 96 minutes/week (p<0.001); days with 30+ minutes of physical activity increased by 0.8 per week (p<0.001). For children, days with 60+ minutes of physical activity increased by 0.8 per week (p<0.01); time spent playing outdoors in neighborhood increased by 11 and 13 minutes, on a typical school day and non-school day, respectively (p<0.05). Frequencies of using community resources (e.g., neighborhoods streets, parks, greenways/trails/paths, home/yard/porch spaces) for physical activities increased for both adults and children. Adults also reported significantly more social interactions (p<0.001) and stronger neighborhood cohesion (p<0.01) after the move. There was a significant correlation between changes in physical activities and increases of social interactions.
A preliminary analysis of the first focus group revealed that environmental features such as sidewalks, parks and open spaces, bike routes, diverse destinations, communal facilities (e.g., mailboxes), and front porches and back alleys played important roles in changing residents' behaviors. However, residents also reported concerns about traffic safety.
Conclusions and Implications
Preliminary results showed significant increases in both physical activities and social interactions and cohesion after residents moved to Mueller. For adult residents, time spent on walking in Mueller had a mean of 123 minutes. This is already very close to the public health guideline for the level of physical activities needed for adults to obtain significant health benefits—at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or a combination.
Before the conference date, follow-up analyses of the full SEM model (with more survey responses) and additional focus groups will further examine mechanisms for these behavior changes and roles of specific design elements. Findings from this research, especially the impacts of specific environmental features, will be checked against principles of LEED-ND and New Urbanism to see if they produced desired impacts on residents' health-related behaviors.
Support / Funding Source
This project is supported by grants from the American Institute of Architects and the Johns Hopkins University Global Center for Childhood Obesity.