"Do You See What I See?"

Although quite a bit of study has been done on the impact of urban environments on youth physical activity levels, this study aimed to fill in literature gaps, especially with regard to youth perceptions of their environment. Do urban boys and girls perceive their environment in the same way? How do these perceptions relate to the actual physical environment? And do kids from different types of urban neighborhoods perceive barriers differently?

This inquiry was two-pronged. First, neighborhood development patterns were classified based on factors determined to affect physical activity levels. Second, responses to an online questionnaire by 308 Baltimore City, Md. high school students were analyzed by gender and neighborhood type. The students were queried on their perceptions of barriers and facilitators to physical activity in their neighborhood. More than 75 percent of the respondents were African American; nearly 60 percent were girls.

Key Findings:

  • Based on objective data and cluster analysis of physical attributes, the researchers identified four major development patterns in Baltimore City: arterial development; suburban residential; inner city; and central business district.
  • Overall, regardless of their neighborhood type, girls were more sensitive to their environment and perceived more barriers to physical activity than boys.
  • Girls who lived in suburban residential neighborhoods were less likely than girls who lived in the central business district to perceive that traffic safety devices, such as crosswalks and pedestrian signals, made them safer.
  • Girls from inner-city neighborhoods were more likely than girls in the central business district to perceive traffic as slow.
  • Boys’ perceptions of their neighborhood did not vary by neighborhood type.

These results are consistent with earlier work that found perceptions of safety of physical activity were a very important concern for adult women but not for men. Research suggests that when trying to make neighborhoods more activity-friendly for teens, it is important to consider how kids’ and, in particular, how girls perceive their environment.