Disparities in Urban Neighborhood Conditions

Evidence from GIS Measures and Field Observation in New York City

There are aesthetic and other characteristics in poor neighborhoods that may explain the disparity in physical activity between residents of those neighborhoods and others, even in big cities where poor and "non-poor" districts may be equally walkable by conventional standards, according to this study of data regarding New York City. The study is part of a supplement to the Journal of Public Health Policy regarding the 2008 Active Living Research Conference.

City folk generally tend to walk more and be more physically active. Both poor neighborhoods (those where more than 20% of residents live in poverty) and nonpoor neighborhoods in big cities may have the mixed-land use, well-connected street layout, and access to public transit that are favorable to walking. This study seeks to identify other characteristics of low-income urban neighborhoods that may explain the relatively lower level of physical activity there. The study examined both census data from 2,172 tracts, and direct field observation of 19 pairs of tracts, to compare poor and nonpoor neighborhoods in New York City with comparable "walkability."

Key Findings:

  • Nonpoor neighborhoods outscored poor neighborhoods in three of the study's statistical measures of aesthetics (more trees on the streets, more landmark buildings, and cleaner streets), although poor neighborhoods were more likely to include parks.
  • Nonpoor neighborhoods appeared safer by several measures, including vehicle crash rates, narcotics arrests, and abandoned houses.
  • In direct observation, most comparisons of aesthetic qualities favored the nonpoor neighborhoods, which had fewer signs of trash or disrepair, although direct observation of safety and transportation infrastructure did not clearly favor one type of neighborhood over the other.
  • In poor blocks, the sidewalks had more commercial activity and more people sitting in groups.
  • Poor neighborhoods also had better access to bicycle paths and subway stops.

The authors acknowledge their study is limited to one city, and suggest future research of other places, other disparities among neighborhoods than poverty, and of the relative importance of different neighborhood characteristics. They posit that policy measures to improve aesthetic and safety conditions in low-income neighborhoods may encourage physical activity and thereby improve public health.