Presentation at the 2007 Active Living Research Annual Conference
This paper investigates the relationships between residents' perceptions of their neighborhood environment and corresponding objective measures of the same attributes and ultimately, tests their influence on physical activity. Existing research has not fully explored the inter-relationships between residents' perceptions of their environment and objective measures of that same environment, and the overall influence of this interaction on walking behavior.
Perceptions and other social-psychological factors are key to fully understanding physical activity, including walking. Theorists and designers in the urban planning and design fields have long held that people encounter, internalize and understand their environment in very complex ways, but these efforts from designers have not been translated into empirical behavioral research, particularly with respect to walking. As a result, there is a lack of understanding of how perceptions are shaped by the environment and the contribution of those relationships in the explanation of walking behavior. This imperfect understanding has hampered the ability to craft effective policy interventions to support and encourage physical activity, pointing to a need for multidisciplinary research that focuses on the importance of perceptions.
This paper examines the influences of the built environment on perceptions and how both perceptions and environment relate to walking behavior while controlling for socio-economic as well as other variables. This paper will aid in the understanding of how factors of the built environment, as mediated by subjective interpretation, influence levels of walking behavior.
The methodology includes a cross-sectional, disaggregate research design that incorporates three major categories of data: (1) objective measures of the environment, including macro-scale land use and urban form variables and micro-scale features of the pedestrian environment, (2) residents' perceptions and attitudes about the environment, collected through a survey, and (3) walking behavior data, collected through a travel diary and survey questionnaire. Five areas in Montgomery County, MD were chosen as the study locations because of the variation in social, environmental, and transportation factors. Three constructs representing major features of the environment (transportation, safety/security, and land use/urban) are elaborated in both the objective and subjective assessments of the environment.
Perceptions of the environment and objective measures of the same were not all highly correlated. Perceptions of traffic safety in particular were not significantly correlated to actual pedestrian crashes. Objective measures of the environment were significantly and positively correlated with each other. On the other hand, the correlations among the perceived measures were less significant and had lower coefficients overall. Models of perceptions showed that objective measures of the environment and socio-demographic measures were generally not good predictors of perceptions. Perceptions had higher explanatory power than objectively measured environment in models of walking behavior.
The results described above show that perceptions are not a clear reflection of the environment, nor are they solely related to socio-demographic characteristics. The results instead indicate that perceptions result from a combination of socio democratic features, the built environment and perhaps other personal characteristics, which are not captured in these models. It is likely that these personal characteristics are related to personality, motivation, attitudes and experiences. Results also support relationships between perceptions of the environment and walking behavior. Perceptions were also better predictors of walking behavior than socio-demographic measures, indicating that perceptions capture individual characteristics better than the former.
The study described above shows that there is value in trying to understand the impact of perceptions on the relationship between the built environment and walking. By better capturing and understanding perceptions, more dimensions of walking behavior can be analyzed. This entails not only a more complete understanding of walking but also more targeted environmental interventions that can better change and improve walkability.