Living in walkable neighborhoods can boost your social life — and your health

SAN DIEGO — Want to boost your social life and your health? Living in a neighborhood where everything is in walking distance may be key. According to researchers at the University of California-San Diego, environments that promote local connections can address the public health crisis of loneliness and isolation.

Loneliness and isolation have been linked to various health risks, including an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia among older adults, and premature death. To combat this crisis, the Surgeon General recommends strengthening social infrastructure by designing neighborhoods that encourage socialization and physical activity.

James F. Sallis, the senior author of the study and a Distinguished Professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health, emphasizes that our environments play a significant role in shaping our social experiences. Unfortunately, many neighborhoods in the U.S. prioritize car travel and lack opportunities for interaction with neighbors.

“Our built environments create or deny long-lasting opportunities for socialization, physical activity, contact with nature, and other experiences that affect public health,” Sallis says in a university release. “Millions of Americans live in neighborhoods where they must drive everywhere, usually alone, and have little or no chance to interact with their neighbors.”

Washington Boulevard in Ogden, Utah
Washington Boulevard in Ogden, Utah (Photo by Chase Charaba on Unsplash)

In contrast, walkable neighborhoods promote active behaviors such as walking for leisure, commuting, or running errands. The study analyzed data from the Neighborhood Quality of Life Study, which included adults living in 32 neighborhoods across Seattle, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. The findings suggest that walkable neighborhoods foster social interactions, such as waving hello, seeking help, or socializing with neighbors.

On the other hand, neighborhoods that require driving and lack gathering places hinder socialization among residents. The study highlights the importance of promoting social interaction as a crucial public health goal. Understanding the impact of neighborhood design enables us to advocate for healthier communities and the well-being of individuals residing in them.

Creating walkable neighborhoods not only reduces traffic incidents and promotes physical activity but also enhances neighborhood social health outcomes. By designing neighborhoods that prioritize walkability, we can enrich our lives and create vibrant communities where people feel connected and supported.

The study is published in the journal Health & Place.

Walkable neighborhoods may also help you live to 100

Living in a walkable neighborhood could help you become a centenarian. In 2020, researchers from Washington State University claim the neighborhood where you live can play a big role in your lifespan.

They found Washingtonians living in very walkable, mixed-age communities are much more likely to reach the century mark. Socioeconomic status appears to play a role as well. People living in well-off urban and small town areas enjoy better odds of living to 100. Such areas include the Seattle and Pullman regions of Washington.

“These findings indicate that mixed-age communities are very beneficial for everyone involved,” says study author Rajan Bhardwaj. “They also support the big push in growing urban centers toward making streets more walkable, which makes exercise more accessible to older adults and makes it easier for them to access medical care and grocery stores.”

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