Open the Door to Safer Communities

Posted on Jul 8, 2016 in General

Walkable neighborhoods improve health, safety, and social life

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Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns

A review of hundreds of articles and nearly 100 peer-reviewed studies find that compact, walkable neighborhoods “have been found to have significant, positive effects for urban dwellers, in terms of social interaction, health, and safety.”

The analysis by Emily Talen and Julia Koschinsky of Arizona State University —Compact, Walkable, Diverse Neighborhoods: Assessing Effects on Residents — was published in the August 2014 issue of Housing Policy Debate. Walkable, compact, and diverse (CWD) neighborhoods — Talen and Koschinsky’s term — have been heavily studied in recent years, especially in the health field. “Of the 95 examples included in the table, 62 percent were in health journals, 28 percent in planning/design, and 10 percent in transportation,” the authors note.

The results were as follows:

  • Fifty studies positively linked health benefits to CWD neighborhoods, while zero showed mostly negative effects. Fourteen found no clear negative or positive effect.
  • Eleven studies positively linked social benefits to CWD neighborhoods, while one showed mostly negative effects. One found no clear negative or positive effect.
  • Twelve studies positively linked safety benefits to CWD neighborhoods, while zero showed mostly negative effects. Five found no clear negative or positive effect.

While there remains “a need for significant caution about giving physical urban form too much import,” the authors find that social scientists are often too shy about recommending CWD as a tool.  “In the United States especially, many social critics are reluctant to use urban form as an appropriate focus of policy intervention (see Hall, 2002). Some researchers have noted that there remains a disconnect between neighborhoods viewed in purely social terms and neighborhoods viewed as physical settings (Roman & Chalfin, 2008; Singh, Siahpush, & Kogan, 2010; Wen & Zhang, 2009). Social scientists often focus on the strong links that can be made between social and spatial isolation (Massey & Denton, 1993), emphasizing the neighborhood as the context of social problems, from high unemployment (Granovetter, 1990) to crime (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997), but the connection to CWD neighborhood form is not exploited as a potential way to address these problems.”

Only 14 percent of neighborhoods in the 359 US metropolitan regions are “places where most errands can be accomplished on foot” according to data from the website Walk Score, the authors note.  The study does not consider the difficulty of the challenge of making more US neighborhoods walkable.

“The challenge is to fully exploit the transformative power of what the CWD neighborhood can do, without overstepping the bounds and expecting more than can be delivered,” they note.

Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better Cities & Towns.