Presentation at the 2007 Active Living Research Annual Conference
Researchers are currently building ecological models that postulate relationships between social networks, the built environment, and active living. Studies testing these relationships include a host of independent variables such as cohesion and collective efficacy, land use, traffic patterns, presence of sidewalks, and access to recreational settings. In recent years, great strides have been made in understanding the complex dynamics that contribute to active living in urban neighborhoods. Yet, few studies have addressed crime and violence, and the impact of fear of crime on exercise or physical health. Furthermore, most health ecology studies incorporating crime and fear examine crime at large levels of aggregation, overlooking the spatial concentrations of crime in urban minority areas.
The current paper examines the environmental factors associated with fear of crime’s influence on physical activity - in this case, walking outdoors. The research tests two hypotheses: (1) violent crime, drug activity, disorder and the presence of gangs decrease residents’ likelihood of walking outdoors due to fear, and (2) greater collective efficacy, neighborhood cohesion and other social capital constructs act as mediating factors to reduce the impact of violent crime, drug activity, disorder and gangs on fear that drives residents indoors.
The paper utilizes an ecological framework to conduct a cross-sectional examination of 900 randomly selected individuals residing in 55 neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. Data were obtained from a household survey that asked residents “How often does worry about crime prevent you from walking someplace in your neighborhood?” The survey also collected information on social capital, access to facilities, and perceived disorder. Data on gang territories were collected directly by the author from police intelligence sources. Data on violent crime and drug activity were collected from the Metropolitan Police Department. Other GIS data were collected from the city’s information technology office. All data were incorporated into a GIS. Ordered logit models were used to test hypotheses. The paper also investigates other environmental attributes for independent and confounding effects (size of blocks, traffic patterns, distance to parks and recreational facilities). The models included tests for spatial effects.
Although the outcome of interest is at the individual level, the chief predictors are neighborhood-level measures. As such, there may be systematic bias in the analysis if unobserved factors about the neighborhood affect the predictors. To mitigate this, a host of ecological-level factors were included in the analysis. However, it is still expected that some relevant factors at the neighborhood level will be unobserved. Such unmodeled effects typically inflate the statistical significance of the predictors and need to be accounted for. In ongoing research, these effects are being modeled using a multi-level approach. Although we expect some variations in our quantitative findings, we expect the qualitative findings of this research to remaining largely unaltered.
The presence of gang territories, violent crime and disorder each significantly drive fear’s impact on walking outdoors controlling for age, race, gender, and years in the neighborhood. Gang territories and neighborhood disorder make the largest contribution to the probability that residents will remain indoors. Collective efficacy and neighborhood cohesion mitigate some of the fear but do not completely depress it. The mediating effects of collective efficacy are greater for models examining officially-reported levels of violence than for other measures of crime and disorder.
Our research implies that previous studies that did not find an effect of officially-reported crime on fear may not have adequately captured the factors that drive fear, and in turn, an individual’s likelihood to walk outside or engage in other types of outdoor activity. Furthermore, programs that aim to increase collective efficacy and cohesion might not be the most effective initiatives to increase safety in neighborhoods. Practices or policies aimed at reducing levels of crime that do not directly attempt to eliminate gangs may have little impact on improving perceptions of safety. Although walking can take vastly different forms, studies have found that walking is a key component of exercise for many residents living in urban areas. Planners and pubic health practitioners who hope to increase physical activity in disadvantaged urban areas should pay more attention to public safety. At a minimum, the numerous and negative impacts of fear of crime justify interventions to improve safety and perceived safety in urban neighborhoods.