Living in a walkable neighborhood fosters socialization and helps create a strong sense of community, new research shows.

Among the active behaviors these walkable neighborhoods promote are walking for leisure or as transportation to school, work shopping or home.

“Our built environments create or deny long-lasting opportunities for socialization, physical activity, contact with nature and other experiences that affect public health,” said senior study author James Sallis, a professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at the University of California, San Diego.

“Transportation and land use policies across the U.S. have strongly prioritized car travel and suburban development, so millions of Americans live in neighborhoods where they must drive everywhere, usually alone, and have little or no chance to interact with their neighbors,” Sallis added in a university news release.

Data came from the Neighborhood Quality of Life Study, which included 1,745 adults ages 20 to 66 living in 32 neighborhoods located in and around Seattle, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

In walkable neighborhoods, people can wave hello to a neighbor, ask for help or socialize in their homes, said study first author Jacob Carson, a student in the UC San Diego – San Diego State University Joint Doctoral Program in Public Health.

Neighborhoods where driving is necessary may have the opposite effect, preventing neighbors from socializing.

“Promoting social interaction is an important public health goal. Understanding the role of neighborhood design bolsters our ability to advocate for the health of our communities and the individuals who reside in them,” Carson said in the release. “Fewer traffic incidents, increases in physical activity and better neighborhood social health outcomes are just a few of the results of designing walkable neighborhoods that can enrich our lives.”

These walkable neighborhoods support one of the U.S. Surgeon General’s six foundational pillars in the national strategy to address a public health crisis caused by loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in this country.

The advisory issued in May by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says that loneliness and isolation can lead to a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia among older adults. It also increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%.

The study findings were published online in the July issue of Health & Place. The research was funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the benefits of physical activity.

SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, news release, June 20, 2023