Participants in the focus groups discussed a range of topics related to positive and negative attributes of the neighborhood and the influence of these characteristics on their active and non-active behaviors. The following sections outline the key themes that emerged as coded and labeled by the researchers.
Land Use Diversity
One of the most common types of comments centered around the convenience of having several different land uses within relatively close proximity to one another (e.g., residential, commercial, institutional, open space). This is frequently referred to as land use diversity or land use mix and is often considered a boon because it permits travel via active means between multiple destinations and home. Indeed, the mix of proximal land uses appeared to influence many residents' transportation choices, at least for those destinations that were accessible in the neighborhood. Some of their comments included:
I work over at the [grocery store], so if I can, I walk to work ... it almost takes just as long to drive.
I mean, everything's right there. You almost feel guilty if you drive!
Additionally, while most people described the benefits of mixed land use in terms of single-purpose excursions from residential to commercial areas (e.g., walking from home to the drug store), a few comments emphasized the convenience of having multiple retail and service businesses in one place:
It's nice that you can walk over here from the neighborhood without having to cross a busy street and risk getting killed. And when you get here, you can take care of several things at once. It's not like [nearby box store shopping center] where you practically have to hop back in your car just to go to the next store. With the sidewalks, getting to and walking around the plaza is pretty easy, even for someone my age.
I like how I can check off a bunch of 'to-dos' in one trip ... groceries, prescription, bank, even get my nails done if I want! (laughs). Seriously though, it helps you save time and probably gas too.
It's nice to be able to get a lot of what you need in one place ... and when you're here doing your shopping for a while, you tend to bump into people you know.
The benefits of this land use diversity were seemingly more salient for certain populations, as exemplified by the comments below from a mother with young children and an older adult:
I don't want to move now. I can walk to the grocery store, I can walk to the post office. I have everything I need, which makes it easier as a parent with young kids. I prefer walking if I can as opposed to loading and unloading them from the car.
We're now in our retirement years and able to walk, so having the cleaners, [grocery store], hardware store so close ... it's having all these things together that makes it really a very nice place to live.
Although most of the comments related to this theme focused on the commercial area in the neighborhood, several residents also appreciated the presence of the park space:
It's cool having a park so close by too. We can just walk over with the dog and throw a ball around and then swing by the coffee shop on our way home.
Because the park is right there just up the road from my house, I think I feel like I should use it. You know what I mean? Might as well take advantage of it. There's not much to it right now, but I still like to walk the path around the perimeter in the morning.
Finally, the very recent addition of an elementary (K-8) school to the community provided an additional dimension to the neighborhood's walkability. Numerous participants, almost exclusively those who were parents, reported changes in their behavior and that of their children as a result of the construction of the school:
This year, our kids don't have to ride the bus and they can walk together to school and back.
Now, a lot of moms walk with their kids to school and then we all walk home together. You know, we're getting some exercise and also some social interaction.
Because there's a school close by now, our daughter's friends are more in the neighborhood now than when she went to [another school] which is way up [major artery street]. It's easier for us and she has more friends to play with on the weekend because they see each other during the week. The adults even know each other better too.
Overall, land use diversity was the most common and strongly referenced theme throughout the groups. Residents generally had only positive comments about having of a variety of destinations within a short distance from home.
Safety was another theme that emerged that tied together several of the comments from residents. Interestingly, participants provided slightly mixed reviews about neighborhood safety in that they felt quite safe from crime but had somewhat greater concerns about traffic issues. These diverse sentiments were exemplified in the following statements:
We can trust leaving our kids outside ... we know most of the people who live around here and our street's not busy. The sidewalks help too so they don't have to play in the street.
I think it helps that they've tried to keep the neighborhood nice ... you know, with the nice architecture in the plaza and the streetlights and park and everything. It's a decent area so you're not too worried about anything bad happening.
Once in a while you get someone in a real hurry. But that's probably only on [major neighborhood road] out here. But I'm glad there's sidewalks or I wouldn't feel as comfortable walking anywhere.
It's terrible at times. It'd be nice to see them put in some sort of traffic calming measures on the busier streets.
However, despite the mixed feelings, especially with respect to safety from traffic, there was general consensus that any safety concerns that did exist did not noticeably affect behavior:
I don't think [the traffic] really prevents anything ... a lot of people are still out walking in the summer.
I'd say I feel pretty safe walking around the neighborhood ... even during rush hour when everyone's coming from work or at night time. There's sidewalks and lights and the people around here generally look out for each other.
Parks and Trails
As described above, residents valued the presence of a park in the neighborhood, even if, at the time of the study, it was largely an unimproved plot of open space (aside from regular mowing and some trees around the edge). Some also commented on other natural amenities they had discovered on the periphery of the community.
It's nice to have that green space in the middle of the neighborhood, just to break up all the pavement.
The backyards in a lot of newer homes these days are pretty small so it's good to have a place where you can go just to throw a ball or let the kids run around.
That whole section of trees, there's nice little walking trails through there that I use with my dog ... when it's a hot, sunny day, it stays cool in there.
However, despite the general appreciation for the park, some concerns were expressed about the space being underdeveloped and underutilized as a result:
The field here - it'd be nice if it was something other than just a big open field. A playground would be ideal for parents with kids.
It would attract a sense of community, right? We'd actually come and hang out in one central location where you can house lots of neighbours.
Do you know what's happening with that space? Hopefully they put some stuff there to make it a bit more inviting.
Fewer comments pertained to the idea of aesthetics, but several residents did seem pleasantly surprised at how appealing their neighborhood had become or remained:
They've really maintained a lot of architectural control in designing the community.
The plaza is similar to what we had in the small town we came from, with awnings over the doors, nice brick ... the old-fashioned lampposts are a nice touch too. It's almost to the point where I actually enjoy shopping here ... like it's not a chore I have to get done. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's just a shopping centre, but they've at least put some thought into its design. And I think more people like coming here as a result.
However, some residents expressed some frustration about the general 'newness' of the community:
I miss the mature trees throughout the streets ... in older neighborhoods, there's more of a variety of home designs ... and less congestion.
Sense of Community
The final theme that emerged encompassed frequent comments, both complimentary and constructive, related to developing a sense of community. To begin, numerous residents expressed feeling a level of connectedness that they didn't necessarily experience in past neighborhoods in which they'd lived:
There's a strong sense of community here ... you need a saw or a drill or something, you just go to your neighbor's house.
I think the fact that things are local, you're more apt to be out ... and having the park and plaza close by, people are more apt to be out because there are things to do.
People are generally pretty friendly. You know, you see them walking on the sidewalk past your house one day and you wave and they wave back. Next time, maybe they stop to talk.
However, despite the numerous positive comments, several people expressed a desire and suggestions for facilitating increased community connectedness:
The festival last weekend - was that really put on by the developers of the subdivision? - that was great. We actually got out and talked to people we sort of knew but had only waved at before. I hope they make it an annual event.
Some sort of community or neighborhood association would be helpful as this area grows.
A central message board where people can post events and other community notices might be useful ... We might chat with people out on the sidewalk during our evening walks, but otherwise we'd never know what was happening in the neighborhood.
This neighborhood is getting to a point now where we need - and deserve - a community centre or library; just something where you can go with your kids and see other families that's close by. Even a smaller common space in the new buildings that are going to be built would be a start.
These and other comments about ideas related to community were some of the more passionate sentiments shared by residents during the focus groups. The importance of this notion is discussed further below.
Behavioral Responses to a Neighborhood Change
The final theme that emerged was less centered around the influence of specific attributes of the built and social environments and instead addressed the broader notion of how a shift in one's overall habitat may influence behavior. Most of these comments came in response to a prompt inquiring about similarities and differences between participants' previous and current neighborhood and most responses focused on positive lifestyle changes that had occurred since the residents had moved to the Williamsburg area. For example, comments related to this theme included:
Well, for one, as I mentioned earlier, we drive a lot less. It's nice having so many things within walking distance. In our old neighborhood, you had to use your car to get anywhere.
Now, there are definitely more things that are accessible that you might use on a day to day basis. It's funny because where we lived several years ago, we actually weren't too far from a small plaza with a grocery store, but you couldn't get to it unless you cut through your neighbor's backyard and crossed a busy street ... either that or walk way around the block and back down the next street over. So we always ended up driving there anyway.
Yes, I would say that living where we are now is quite a bit different than where we were before over in [neighborhood on opposite side of town]. We liked it over there and everything, but it didn't feel like we knew our neighbors as much. Now, we see people out walking, we run into them at [grocery store], we see them on the weekend when the kids are out playing. I'm not sure I could put my finger on why, but it definitely feels like there's more of a connection among the people living around here.
Oh yeah, it's totally different. Like our old neighborhood didn't have sidewalks and we were always scared to let the kids bike on the road. I mean, part of that was because they were younger then, but even right after we moved here, I remember feeling more comfortable letting them bike up and down the street, especially because there were other kids out doing so too.
You know, it's funny you should ask that because my husband and I were just saying the other day that there always seems to be a lot of people out walking around here. We just moved in this Spring and you can definitely see a difference versus where we lived before. And that goes for us too, especially on the weekend ... but even in the evenings some nights during the week, we'll go for a walk around the neighborhood or we'll walk up to get a coffee or to pick up some stuff for lunch the next day.
Despite these positive sentiments, a minority of residents who relayed opinions related to this theme described less positive changes in their motivations and behaviors since moving to their new neighborhood:
Yeah, it's certainly a bit different. There a lot of good things compared to the town we lived in previously, but we definitely miss some stuff too ... like here the neighborhood is still maturing and one of the big ways you notice that is with the lack of trees. There's no shade to keep the sun off you and it means we have to time when we take our walks which is somewhat annoying, especially for seniors who have all day to kill (laughs). My wife, especially, doesn't like to walk until the sun goes down because she complains about the heat ... at least in the summer ... and sometimes we're too tired by then which means we don't go at all.
You know, we generally like the neighborhood, but we can't wait until they do something more with the park. It's not exactly an exciting destination for the kids. In our old neighborhood, we were only about a 5-10 minute walk from [community park X] where there was a huge playground and we went there at least a couple times a week. Now that I think about it, I kind of miss that ... but hopefully we'll get back to doing that again soon if they put some stuff in the park here.
A few other comments likewise conveyed negative behavior modifications as a result of the undeveloped park and a lack of trees, the primary frustrations described by participants in previous themes. However, the vast majority of lifestyle differences described by residents after moving to this largely walkable community were desirable. Regardless, both the positive and negative comments provide tentative evidence about how a neighborhood environment change can influence physical activity and other behaviors.