Using Google Street View to Audit Neighborhood Environments

Google Street View is a cost-effective alternative to neighborhood field studies.

A neighborhood’s activities and physical features have implications for the health of its residents. Google Street View allows researchers to conduct “virtual” audits of a neighborhood’s characteristics.

This study compared observations made from Google Street View images with a previous field study of New York City blocks. The field study collected 103 detailed measures—e.g., aesthetics, pedestrian safety and car traffic—of 38 city blocks. A research assistant, using the field study’s observational methods, examined Google Street View images of the same blocks. Researchers calculated the percentage of neighborhood characteristics that appeared in both the Google Street View images and the field study.

Key Findings:

  • For 54 percent of the neighborhood characteristics, there was a high level of correlation between the “virtual” and field observations.
  • Neighborhood characteristics that were small, like corner curb-cuts, and that varied over time, such as pedestrian traffic, were difficult to measure using Google Street View.

Google Street View is more efficient and less intrusive than field studies of the neighborhood environment. Future studies will need to master the program’s functions, such as panning and magnification, to create reliable observations.