The context. Open Streets are initiatives in which cities close a route to motorized vehicles for a few hours and open it for biking, walking, jogging, or participating in activities set up specifically for the event, such as basketball or soccer games or dancing or yoga demonstrations.
In 2010, St. Louis held four such events to showcase the city and encourage residents to be physically active. However, the events “were dominated by White adult males, and 80 percent of the participants were college educated,” explains J. Aaron Hipp, PhD, assistant professor of public health at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. “Open Streets were getting people in from the suburbs who wanted to ride their nice bikes on the city streets,” he says.
Connecting with RWJF. Hipp and fellow researcher, Amy A. Eyler, PhD, also an assistant professor at the Brown School wanted to broaden the appeal of Open Streets to inner-city residents, nearly half of whom are Black (48.5%) and who are 23 percent less likely to exercise and 32 percent more likely to be obese than residents of Missouri as a whole. In May 2011 they received a $140,482 grant from Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to find ways to do that.
Active Living Research supports research on environmental and policy strategies that promote daily physical activity for children and families across the United States. The program focuses on children of color and lower-income children, two groups at especially high risk for obesity. (For more information, read the Program Results Report.)
Parallel interest in public health. Both Hipp and Eyler started out thinking they would translate their enthusiasm for an active lifestyle into careers as physical therapists, but both discovered during their undergraduate years that they really were more interested in promoting the value of exercise at a population level than through one-on-one interactions with patients.
Amy A. Eyler, PhD. Acting on that insight, Eyler earned an undergraduate degree in community health in 1987 and a master’s degree in health promotion and disease prevention in 1988, both from Ohio University. Afterward, she worked for a couple of years as a health educator at Intergroup Healthcare Corporation in Phoenix, an HMO, before returning to school and earning a doctorate in public health at Oregon State University in 1998.
Eyler moved with her husband to St. Louis in 1995, finishing her dissertation as a long-distance student and also joining the staff at the Prevention Research Center at Saint Louis University. In 2008, when the Prevention Research Center became a collaborative effort between Saint Louis University and Washington University, Eyler joined the staff at Washington University as a research professor.
During her early years in academia, Eyler’s research niche evolved from prevention and physical activity broadly to the analysis of public policies “in communities, schools and work sites that can impact physical activity—and one of these emerging policy-type issues is these Open Streets,” she says.
J. Aaron Hipp, PhD. Hipp graduated from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., in 2000 with an undergraduate degree in biology and an avid interest in marine biology, stemming from a junior-year-abroad program in Copenhagen, Denmark. After graduation, he spent one year in Everett, Wash., (where he met his wife) while working on an AmeriCorps VISTA project at a homeless housing agency.
He earned a doctorate in 2009 at the University of California, Irvine in social ecology—an area of research that focuses on solving complex societal problems using a multidisciplinary approach involving the perspectives of criminology, social behavior and psychology, and urban planning and public health.
Hipp joined the faculty at Washington University in 2009 and became involved with the Prevention Research Center. Evolving from his work in social ecology, Hipp’s research focuses on the person-environment relationship, particularly the psychosocial and physical benefits gained from interacting with open spaces, such as parks. He is particularly interested in the role of climate change: “As sea levels rise and climates warm up, is that going to change how people use these environments that have been shown to be supportive?” he asks.
Their research project. Soon after moving to St. Louis, Hipp attended a meeting at the Prevention Research Center with Eyler, other investigators, and staff from the St. Louis mayor’s office, who asked for help planning and evaluating Open Streets; Hipp and Eyler volunteered. “We thought, ‘Here is a great chance to study this initiative in a city that has big racial and ethnic health disparities,’ ” Hipp recalls.
Even before they received their Active Living Research grant, Eyler and Hipp began evaluating the Open Streets events held in 2010. Working with city officials, they developed a strategy to attract minority, inner-city residents to 2011 and 2012 Open Streets events, and to track change in attendance over three years—2010, 2011, 2012.
For example, they awarded 10 minigrants, ranging from $100 to $700, to local organizations, such as schools or churches, to host activity hubs during an Open Streets event. To qualify, the organization had to use the funds to purchase supplies—such as a portable basketball hoop, tumbling mats, or ping pong table—that could be reused on other occasions.
Hipp and Eyler also designed an evaluation for the 2011 and 2012 events, which included surveys of participants, direct observations, interviews with activity-hub organizers, and counts of participants. They created poster boards, each of which asked a simple question and allowed participants to place stickers on the response that best fit them. For example, one board asked about what the participant did while at the event, while another asked what zip code they live in. “We were looking for something fun and less intrusive than a paper and pencil and clipboard,” Eyler says
To identify other promotion and evaluation strategies and populations to target, they studied 47 Open Street events that occurred nationally in 2011 and interviewed 27 lead organizers of those events.
Their research challenges. But comparing data in St. Louis across three years to see if attendance among inner-city residents increased over time was difficult because the routes as well as the demographic characteristics of residents living near them changed with each event, ranging from a six-mile event in the downtown area in 2010 to a one-mile, neighborhood-specific route in 2012, Eyler says. (The city of St. Louis has not held an Open Streets event since 2012.)
Their findings. Despite the challenges in collecting comparable data over the three years, Hipp and Eyler did note some changes over time. They reported that the proportion of young Open Streets participants under age 18 grew over the three years, from 14.5 percent in 2010 to about 32 percent in both 2011 and 2012.
Data on race and ethnicity of young participants was not collected for the 2010 events. The data for 2012, show that 13 percent of adults at one Open Streets event and 18 percent at the other were members of racial or ethnic minorities, while the percentage of non-White children (35%) was the same at both events.
Eyler and Hipp produced a plethora of publications—including one-page policy briefs, journal articles, and a toolkit—based on their work, focusing on the lessons they learned about how to organize, market, and evaluate Open Streets. Their toolkit (available online) provides detailed information about how to evaluate Open Streets events as well as downloadable templates for surveys of participants and businesses, participant counts, and evaluations of activity hubs.
Some of the lessons they learned:
- Local nonprofit organizations, such as schools and community groups, need to be involved in planning and marketing the event.
- Awarding small grants to organizations encourages them to participate.
“Because you lightly invested in their organization, they are going to advertise this and try to get all of their families and kids out there.” Hipp explains.
- It is also important to talk to people who own businesses along the route about “What the event is, why you are doing it, and how it could benefit them. Instead of whizzing by in a car, participants will be walking by slowly and looking in their windows,” Eyler says.
- All Open Streets organizers should collect and analyze data to demonstrate the impact their event had on the community. “If it is going to be sustainable, you have to have some numbers and data,” Hipp explains.
RWJF perspective. Launched in 2001, Active Living Research is a $31 million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, the design of the built environment and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday life for all Americans. Over the past few years, the program has focused on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the lower-income and racial/ethnic minority communities in which childhood obesity levels are highest and rising fastest.
Active Living Research seeks to translate actionable research findings into policy and practice change as rapidly as possible. “The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that our everyday physical activity levels depend on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity. In addition, a growing number of urban planners and transportation policy-makers recognize that community design is critical for health,” says C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.
Researchers test ways to attract minority & inner-city residents to Open Streets & to measure results