Study: Building walkable communities can change behavior for the better

It’s not unusual for studies on community walkability to face the perplexing question of self-selection. In other words, people who already like to walk end up moving to walkable communities and so those communities naturally have higher physical activity rates. In even simpler terms, it’s about the person, not the environment. However, a new study finds that walkable community design does influence healthy behavior — even among people with no preference for walking in the first place.

Published in December in a supplement of the Preventive Medicine journal, the study examined changes in residents’ physical activities, social interactions and neighborhood cohesion after they moved into a walkable community in Austin, Texas, known as Mueller. (Disclosure: I live in Austin and frequently walk around the parks and neighborhoods of Mueller.) Mueller is a 711-acre community about five miles from downtown that will eventually accommodate 10,000 residents and 10,000 employees when it’s fully complete in 2018. It’s a compact development that’s home to residences, retailers, complete sidewalks, community gathering areas and lots of wide-open green space. To conduct the study, researchers surveyed more than 400 residents between 2013 and 2014 on their activities and perceptions of Mueller as well as their experiences before moving to Mueller.

Xuemei Zhu, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University, said Mueller represents somewhat of a rare opportunity for researchers. While planned walkable communities are growing in number, she said their popularity is still limited. And even though Mueller is still fairly new, residents have lived there long enough to experience a personal impact.

“We wanted to study how the built environment influences people’s behaviors, but it can be rare to have that type of opportunity,” Zhu told me. “We see the potential of involving more walkable and compact environments in making people healthier and making the environment more sustainable.”

In studying the Austin neighborhood, Zhu and her fellow researchers found that physical activity significantly increased after moving to Mueller among the entire study sample, except among those who had previously been sufficiently physically active. Overall, residents reported a 40 percent average increase in walking or biking after moving to Mueller. Specifically, 65 percent of residents said they experienced increased physical activity post-move, while 48 percent said their health had improved. The number of residents who took part in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five or more days per week increased from about 34 percent to nearly 46 percent after moving to Mueller. In addition, residents reported spending significantly less time in their cars, which can be a boon for local air quality.

Digging even deeper, the study found that residents who previously lived in less-walkable communities reported significant increases in physical activity, while those who came from highly walkable communities did not report big changes after moving to Mueller. In particular, residents who came from medium-, low- and very low-walkability communities all reported nearly an hour of additional physical activity per week after moving to Mueller. Perhaps most notably, people who reported low levels of physical activity pre-Mueller experienced significantly increased levels of physical activity after moving to Mueller. In addition to the physical activity effects, residents also reported feelings of heightened neighborhood cohesion after moving to the more walkable neighborhood.

Zhu told me that while she wasn’t entirely surprised to uncover physical activity impacts, she was surprised to see such a positive impact on social interaction and cohesion. In fact, she said the social cohesion impacts might be even more dramatic than the physical activity effects, as positive feelings about social cohesion significantly increased throughout the entire study sample and not just in particular subgroups. To illustrate that finding, Zhu noted that while many of the Mueller homes have either no backyard or very small backyards, residents didn’t seem to mind — they were happy to sacrifice the backyard space in exchange for heightened social interaction with their neighbors.

“In many instances, (residents) mentioned how great the neighborhood support is...and that’s always very important for health conditions, both mentally and physically,” she said. “While we cannot claim (a direct association) right now, I would guess that social interaction acts as a mediator and actually encourages people to be more active. It’s mutually beneficial — if you’re more active, you have more social interaction, and if you have more friends in the neighborhood, you’re more likely to go out and be active.”

In the future, Zhu and her colleagues hope to follow Mueller residents over a longer time period as well as reach out to people before they move to Mueller to more precisely gauge the effects of living in a walkable community. They also hope to learn more about the effects on lower-income families, as Mueller was specifically designed as a mixed-income neighborhood. Still, she said this preliminary study does support the notion that designing walkable built environments can produce healthier behaviors, which could be a real boost for public health efforts to increase physical activity and curb the costly obesity epidemic.

“We need to further bridge urban planning and public health efforts,” Zhu said. “This is an approach that may be more likely to work for a majority of the population and is easier to sustain. It’s a win-win solution.”

To learn more about the study, visit Preventive Medicine or click here for a news release about the research.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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