Uncovering JAPA

Life Satisfaction and Your Neighborhood Built Environment

Promoting physical health and well-being has long been one of the top priorities of urban planners. In recent years, however, the definition of well-being with which planners concern themselves has broadened to include more abstract states of being such as “happiness.”

It is no longer enough to simply design an interconnected park system or develop a large-scale medical campus — city officials need to consider the subjective well-being (SWB) of their constituents.

While the subjective well-being of communities is now widely accepted as a planner’s responsibility, there is no clear suggested method for promoting or measuring SWB. Also, several factors affect SWB, ranging from inherited characteristics to unexpected life circumstances.

In “Do Neighborhood Walkability, Transit and Parks Relate to Residents’ Life Satisfaction?” in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 2), Deirdre Pfeiffer, Meagan Ehlenz, Riley Andrade, Scott Cloutier, and Kelli Larson explore how subjective well-being is associated with the objective and perceived neighborhood built environment.

The authors look at the interconnections between three aspects of the neighborhood built environment — walkability, transit, and parks — and one aspect of SWB: life satisfaction.

The authors use descriptive and econometric methods, drawing on a survey of 496 people in the Phoenix region. The participants were selected through stratified random sampling in 12 different areas. When measuring objective conditions, the "neighborhood" was defined by census block groups; however, for the perceived conditions it was self-defined by the participants.

Due to this difference, the authors “account for whether or not participants perceived their neighborhood geography narrowly to capture how people’s delineation of their residential environment might shape perceived NBE and potential linking factors.”

Revised Concept Diagram from “Do Neighborhood Walkability, Transit and Parks Relate to Residents’ Life Satisfaction?” Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 2).

Revised Concept Diagram from “Do Neighborhood Walkability, Transit and Parks Relate to Residents’ Life Satisfaction?Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 2).

There were a number of key takeaways from the study, but the unexpected link between residents’ perceptions of their neighborhood boundaries and life satisfaction was the most surprising one.

Having a narrow perception of one’s neighborhood was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction, however, the authors note that, consistent with prior literature, this was somewhat correlated with income and race.

Another important finding with respect to perceptions was that “people who had greater perceived, not objective, neighborhood park access had higher life satisfaction."

While the results “support theories that neighborhoods with more compact design and access to parks might promote life satisfaction,” they also highlight “incongruities between people’s perceptions and the objective qualities” of their surroundings.

As the authors point out, further research is needed to “untangle the interplay” between objective and perceived environments. Planners must use caution when making assumptions about resident behaviors from objective indicators because, as the study finds, people’s lived experiences and subsequent awareness of their surroundings do not always match up with the "objective" assessments of their environment.

This underscores “the importance of public engagement processes and qualitative assessments as tools for planners at the neighborhood level.” Especially in an era where we are inundated with data and plans for digital cities, we “must not lose sight of human variability.”

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image: Children in a park water fountain. Photo in the public domain.


About the Author
Elifmina Mizrahi is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University.

August 27, 2020

By Elifmina Mizrahi