Public Health Law Research: Zoning for Walkability

May 8, 2013, 1:59 PM, Posted by

Municipal mixed-use zoning is a public health strategy to create more walkable neighborhoods by creating integrated, un-siloed access to daily activities—such as going grocery shopping and traveling to school and work. A study in the Journal of Health, Politics, Policy and Law funded by Public Health Law Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, evaluated municipal zoning ordinances in 22 California cities to see whether the ordinances improved walkability in those communities. NewPublicHealth spoke with the study’s two authors, Sue Thomas, PhD, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation-Santa Cruz (PIRE) and Carol Cannon, PhD, formerly with PIRE and current associate research scientist at the CDM Group, Inc, a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md.

>>Read the full study

NewPublicHealth: What was the scope of your study? 

Carol Cannon: We looked at ordinances that create municipal mixed use zoning, and whether these laws seem to have an impact on the potential for walking to destinations. 

NPH: In what ways were the study and findings innovative?

Carol Cannon: The critical thing here is that we started with on the legal side of the picture, which is really different than many studies, which start with the actual survey of the neighborhood. To our knowledge, this is one of the first studies that looks at the content of the ordinances.

NPH: What are the key findings?

Carol Cannon: There was a positive relationship between using the American Planning Association's model mixed use zoning and potential walking destinations. So that provides evidence that these laws are, in fact, generally doing what they're supposed to do. The study also shows that the greater range and precision of the ordinance, the greater the impact that resulted from it. That’s significant in terms of policymakers and how they would look at creating new laws.

NPH: What do we mean by a mixed use zoning community?

Carol Cannon: What the APA model is trying to do is to create this blend of residential, commercial, public, civic, and industrial zones—basically, a neighborhood in which people can both live and work, their kids can go to school, and they can go shopping [all in a single, walkable neighborhood]. In our study we expanded and specified a range of businesses, for example, under the commercial category, with the idea that the greater that range, the more likely you're going to find jobs that people can actually work at in a particular zone or neighborhood.  So you create a setting in which all of those daily life activities are closer together and create the potential that you could walk or bike to and get less use of an automobile.

NPH: In what way does your study become a model or a guidepost for communities that are considering mixed use zoning?

Carol Cannon: An important conclusion is that mixed use zoning alone is very good, but it's not sufficient. What our study contributed was looking at being able to measure how the ordinance was written and how closely it came to the APA model and seeing that that makes a difference as far as outcomes that matter to public health. 

Sue Thomas: We also wanted to point out that we used Google Earth as our tool. We were looking for a tool that would be readily accessible. And while there are limitations to Google Earth, you're looking at a snapshot at a particular time, the fact that it is a free resource allowed us to get a snapshot of both the number and the variety of businesses within each zone. And it also facilitated our ability to have research assistants and researchers and teams of people all looking at the same map and doing quality control at the same time that they were identifying different locations. This allowed us to do the research in a more efficient and relatively low cost way.

The reason I highlight it as part of our study is because it makes accessible to a whole range of people the ability to do this kind of work who don’t necessarily already have access to sophisticated and fairly expensive [mapping] software. 

Carol Cannon: We also found that municipal ordinances are generally pretty available online, which made them accessible to us and then we could review them and do the coding and the analysis. They are updated pretty frequently on city websites.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.