Connectivity is good for walkability, but social factors also matter

By Saumya Jain

Most efforts to increase bike and walk accessibility focus on physical access. But the built environment is not the full story. A new study finds that certain attributes of the social environment also greatly affect the perception of walkability, especially among people of color.

To understand the attributes associated with perceived walkability among different ethnic and cultural groups, the researchers conducted on-site interviews in two locations—one predominantly Mexican-American and the other a predominantly non-Hispanic White neighborhood in Tucson, AZ. Other than the cultural differences, the researchers matched the locations for income, poverty rates, and built environment. The researchers designed most of the questions as open-ended prompts—general likes and dislikes about the areas.  The researchers found that there was a major discrepancy in the perception of walking in the two locations. For respondents from the predominantly non-Hispanic White neighborhood, the most important contributors were all related to the physical infrastructure of walking. In contrast, respondents from the predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood showed a greater inclination toward attributes of the social environment, such as social interaction, community identity, and safety.

The Tucson study is not the only one  to highlight the importance of social environment in walkability, but it does serve to sharpen the focus on incorporating consideration of cultural and ethnic perspectives  in planning:

While the built environment is clearly a critical component of walkability, built environment-only approaches for assessing neighborhood walkability, or a failure to recognize how social and physical dimensions may interact, can result in investments that fail to address underlying barriers in a community that are preventing residents from walking. In such a situation this may lead to a disconnect between city and community priorities and, especially in areas where residents are concerned about gentrification and economic displacement, may result in a sense that such investment is being made for future residents.