When it comes to the health benefits of walkable cities, in which the built environment is conducive to walking, the scientific and public health communities are broadly in agreement. Walkable cities reduce the risk of putting on excess body weight, increase general levels of physical activity, and can potentially reduce the amount of time adults spend on electronic devices. However, one of the more neglected aspects of walkability in public health literature has been walkability’s effect on individual happiness levels. While it is easy to assume that the health benefits associated with walkability would naturally increase happiness, these assumptions should not be taken for granted, which is why researchers in the Journal of Public Health released a new study considering the link between walkability and neighborhood satisfaction.
The study’s authors surveyed 843 adults with verified addresses in the city of Graz, Austria, which has mix of high and low walkability neighborhoods. Respondents were asked to rate their neighborhood satisfaction of four characteristics- general neighborhood satisfaction, general socio-environmental quality, social cohesion, and satisfaction with local infrastructure- using a five-point scale ranging from “very satisfied” to “not satisfied at all.” Interestingly, the study found that increases in walkability only increased peoples’ satisfaction with their local infrastructure. Increased walkability had no statistically significant effect on satisfaction with their neighborhood overall, nor did it increase the sense of community people felt within their neighborhoods.
While this is only one study, the results nevertheless raise several questions. First, why does walkability increase satisfaction with infrastructure but not general neighborhood satisfaction? Second, why doesn’t a walkable neighborhood, in which people would theoretically be interacting more with their neighbors, increase social cohesion and sense of community? Finally, what can be done to make neighborhoods both walkable and satisfying for their residents? The health benefits of increased walkability are clear, but it seems like those benefits are outweighed in residents’ assessments of their communities. With walkability becoming an increasingly popular cause among public health professionals and community organizations, it is worth examining what can be done to make walkable neighborhoods more comprehensively beneficial to residents.
Ignoring the satisfaction of residents is a risky proposition, especially if neighborhoods publicly tout their walkability as a benefit. If people do not feel satisfied, even in their more walkable neighborhoods, it may lead them to ignore the designation as a factor in choosing future homes or communities. That would be an unfortunate setback, both from a public health and from an environmental perspective.