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Open Access Research article

Inequitable walking conditions among older people: examining the interrelationship of neighbourhood socio-economic status and urban form using a comparative case study

Theresa L Grant1*, Nancy Edwards2, Heidi Sveistrup3, Caroline Andrew4 and Mary Egan5

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Population Health, University of Ottawa, 1 Stewart St, Room 300, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 6N5

2 School of Nursing and Department of Epidemiology and Community Medicine, University of Ottawa, 451 Smyth Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1H 8M5

3 School of Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Ottawa, 451 Smyth Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1H 8M5

4 University of Ottawa, School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa, 55 Laurier Avenue East, Room 9101, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 6N5

5 School of Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Ottawa, 451 Smyth Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1H 8M5

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:677  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-677

Published: 5 November 2010

Abstract

Background

Supportive neighbourhood walking conditions are particularly important for older people as they age and who, as a group, prefer walking as a form of physical activity. Urban form and socio-economic status (SES) can influence neighbourhood walking behaviour. The objectives of this study were: a) to examine how urban form and neighbourhood SES inter-relate to affect the experiences of older people who walk in their neighbourhoods; b) to examine differences among neighbourhood stakeholder key informant perspectives on socio-political processes that shape the walkability of neighbourhood environments.

Methods

An embedded comparative case study examined differences among four Ottawa neighbourhoods that were purposefully selected to provide contrasts on urban form (inner-urban versus suburban) and SES (higher versus lower). Qualitative data collected from 75 older walkers and 19 neighbourhood key informants, as well as quantitative indicators were compared on the two axes of urban form and SES among the four neighbourhoods.

Results and discussion

Examining the inter-relationship of neighbourhood SES and urban form characteristics on older people's walking experiences indicated that urban form differences were accentuated positively in higher SES neighbourhoods and negatively in lower SES neighbourhoods. Older people in lower SES neighbourhoods were more affected by traffic hazards and more reliant on public transit compared to their higher SES counterparts. In higher SES neighbourhoods the disadvantages of traffic in the inner-urban neighbourhood and lack of commercial destinations in the suburban neighbourhood were partially offset by other factors including neighbourhood aesthetics. Key informant descriptions of the socio-political process highlighted how lower SES neighbourhoods may face greater challenges in creating walkable places. These differences pertained to the size of neighbourhood associations, relationships with political representatives, accessing information and salient neighbourhood association issues. Findings provide evidence of inequitable walking environments.

Conclusion

Future research on walking must consider urban form-SES inter-relationships and further examine the equitable distribution of walking conditions as well as the socio-political processes driving these conditions. There is a need for municipal governments to monitor differences in walking conditions among higher and lower SES neighbourhoods, to be receptive to the needs of lower SES neighbourhood and to ensure that policy decisions are taken to address inequitable walking conditions.