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TUCSON, Ariz. — The type of neighborhood you live in might play a significant role in your mental health, level of physical activity, and your perceived level of safety, a new study finds.

Adriana Zuniga-Teran, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona and an architect by training, sought to examine how four different styles of neighborhood design affects the health and wellness of the people that live there. Specifically, she examined traditional neighborhoods, suburban developments, gated communities, and cluster housing communities.

Homes in a city neighborhood
Feeling depressed or more worried than usual? Your neighborhood could be the reason why, a new study finds.

Nine different factors were observed to determine the “walkability” of each neighborhood style. Those factors were: neighborhood connectivity, land use, density, traffic safety, surveillance, parking, resident experience, green space, and community.

Zuniga-Terean then surveyed residents from each neighborhood type on a number of topics including their walking habits, their opinions on neighborhood safety, and interactions with neighbors.

Among her findings:

She found that cluster neighborhoods — typically comprised of townhouse or row homes — are the most social and residents feel safe to the point that there’s no perceived crime. These types of communities often have neighborhood swimming pools and shared parking lots, along with preserved green space for people to walk through — likely large factors in the social aspect.

Residents of suburban development showed the highest well-being, which she was surprised to find since there are a lot of negatives frequently cited about them, such as: “increased traffic, longer commute times for residents, a decreased sense of community and even stereotypes of suburban depression,” according to a university release.

She suspects that income might have something to do with the mental health boost, but that nature does as well.

“Suburban developments have large lots and trees, and nature provides many well-being benefits,” she says in the release. “It buffers noise, and just looking at nature results in lower stress. There are a lot of studies that support these hypotheses, and that might explain these results.”

Conversely, people who lived in traditional neighborhoods, often located near main thoroughfares containing shopping areas and restaurants, had the lowest mental well-being and highest perception of crime among the group. These neighborhoods were more likely to be dirtier and the lack of attention to beautifying the area could lead to a stronger belief in more crime taking place.

“If people see incivilities — like trash, litter or graffiti — they may feel like there’s crime going on,” says Zuniga-Teran, who only used residents’ perceptions of crime, and not actual statistics in the study.

Surprisingly, her analysis found that people who lived in gated communities did not perceive their neighborhoods as safer than people who lived in non-gated communities.

“It was very interesting because enclosed communities didn’t show any outstanding well-being benefit. They did not score the highest in anything, not even perceived safety, which is kind of odd because they close themselves out for safety reasons,” explains Zuniga-Teran.

For her next study, she plans to look at the impact planting trees has on low-income neighborhoods.

“Most people in the world live in cities, and that’s the way it’s going to be in the future. Cities are going to grow more than rural areas, and we are going to become an urbanized world, so understanding how to improve life in cities is very important,” she says.

The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

About Kate Ferguson

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