Communities that lack amenities, infrastructure and organization favorable to pedestrians — common throughout the United States — are contributing to a national health crisis, according to two Texas A&M College of Architecture professors who are researching how urban design can encourage, rather than impede, physical activity and help combat sedentary lifestyles.
“For the past few decades we've been building cities in which people cannot walk to a store, school or restaurant,” said Chanam Lee, associate professor of urban planning. “In many cases, they have to rely on an automobile to safely perform their daily routines.”
Conditions for pedestrians are mostly unfavorable and frequently downright dangerous, she said.
“You could get yourself killed trying to walk across Texas Avenue,” said Lee, offering the example of Bryan-College Station's main north-south thoroughfare.
The reliance on automobiles for everyday tasks contributes to a lack of physical activity — a major risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S., said Lee. And the cost of treating heart disease is expected to triple in the U.S. between 2010-2030, from $273 billion to $818 billion, according to the American Heart Association.
Aided by more than $9 million in funding, much of it from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research initiative, Lee and her colleague, Xuemei Zhu, assistant professor of architecture, have led or participated in more than 20 research projects focused on neighborhood walkability and how it can be improved to promote physical activity.
They have investigated the difference between perceived and actual crime levels in a neighborhood and how public perceptions about crime impede walking; created neighborhood walkability guidelines for designers; identified practices that encourage children to walk to school; examined links between neighborhood safety, physical activity, obesity and health-related quality of life for people older than 50; and reviewed the health benefits and effectiveness of purpose-built activity- and pedestrian-friendly communities.
"Walkable" neighborhoods typically contain a cluster of destinations — grocery stores, parks, schools, restaurants and cafes — close to home, generally within a half-mile. The proximity of such destinations within a neighborhood encourages the integration of physical activity into a daily routine.
Neighborhood walkability is enhanced when these destinations are accessible via a network of wide, interconnected sidewalks, preferably separated from street traffic by parallel parking and a green space, or strip, lined with shade trees, a garden or other visually pleasing elements.
“Many people say ‘I don’t have time to exercise,’” said Lee. “But if the exercise, like walking, is integrated into people’s lives, it’s much easier to do.”
“Our research has shown links between people’s willingness to walk to their destinations and characteristics of the built environment,” she said. “We’ve been able to quantify the effects that factors, such as the proximity of residences and business, sidewalk connectivity and safety, have on a neighborhood’s walkability.”
Lee and Zhu are also trying to determine which elements of the built environment have more impact on people’s perceptions of how walkable a neighborhood is.
“For example," Zhu said, "are wide, well-maintained sidewalks or safe crossings more important? Or is a shaded walking path more important?”
Such distinctions are relevant because public funds available for enhancing a neighborhood's walkability are limited.
Another variable that many policymakers are eager to pin down is what exactly constitutes a "walkable distance," but that interval can vary from place to place, said Zhu.
“It’s not as simple as ‘OK, it’s a half-mile or quarter-mile,’ because depending on the neighborhood, that distance might be different,” said Zhu. “For high-income parents in a suburban community, walking to school with a child can be the highlight of their day," she said. "But for an Hispanic mother from an inner-city neighborhood that’s unsafe, it’s a totally different story. She won’t even let her children walk to school because she’s worried about something happening to them along the way.”
Such findings have intersected Lee and Zhu’s research with law enforcement, an example of the interdisciplinary approach to improving neighborhood walkability. Their research partners often include geographers, public health professionals, transportation specialists and practitioners from many other disciplines.
"People from outside our discipline may think there are simple solutions, as in 'fix this, and the problem is solved,'" said Lee. “But these problems involve law enforcement, economics, family dynamics and other factors, and solutions are complicated and need to be context sensitive.”
Knowledge garnered from Lee and Zhu's walkability research is being used in the city of Austin's review of applications for new subdivisions.
"City personnel are looking for a certain kind of design, because they are familiar with our research findings,” said Zhu. In addition to looking for designs that will encourage walking, the city, she said, keeps an eye out for designs known to decrease walkability, like cul-de-sacs, which are “dead-ends” for walkers because they decrease a neighborhood’s connectivity.
Their walkability research is also making an impact in the Brazos Valley, where Lee trained high school students in Bryan and College Station to perform walkability audits of their schools.
“They presented their proposed changes to sidewalks and crosswalks to their respective city councils,” said Lee. ”By partnering with the community in this way we can help develop policy actions. It makes our research findings make differences in people’s lives,” said Lee.