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Faculty to study health effects of pedestrian-friendly zoning

Woman and child walking in a neighborhood

A national study will allow researchers in the UIC College of Nursing to look at how community zoning policies and environments–such as walkability and access to parks and fitness centers–affect the health of residents.

Nursing Collegiate Professor Shannon Zenk, PhD, MS ’99, MPH, RN, FAAN, is co-principal investigator, along with Sandy Slater, research associate professor in the School of Public Health, on the $150,000 one-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Data for Action program. Elizabeth Tarlov, College of Nursing assistant professor, is also a co-investigator, as are Jamie Chriqui, School of Public Health professor, Oksana Pugach, Institute of Health Research and Policy biostatistician, and Coady Wing, Indiana University assistant professor.

“We’re looking at how zoning code reforms influence people’s weight,”  Zenk says. “These are policies that shape how pedestrian-friendly the environment is for walking, biking, running and, really, active living.” 

Zenk said the study is unique because the researchers have access to longitudinal data on patient body weight, demographics and health status from athenahealth for an estimated 11 million people across the country and across the lifespan. They’ll be able to link that information to national policy and environmental data from their own existing data sets.

Policy data come from a study Chriqui and Slater conducted and includes information on community policy provisions such as mixed use, street connectivity, and active and passive recreation. Environmental data come from an NIH-funded grant that Zenk and Tarlov led and includes information on walkability, accessibility of parks and commercial fitness centers, and other environmental features.

The researchers will also study how policies and the environment affect groups at greater risk for obesity, such as African Americans and Latinos, Zenk says.

“Ultimately, the goal is to inform policy change,”  Zenk says. “If we find that there is a relationship between pedestrian-friendly zoning and healthier weights, then we hope to disseminate it to policy-makers and advocates to try to bring about change locally, and on a larger scale, in terms of promoting these types of community designs and development.” 

The Health Data For Action program funds innovative research that uses available data to answer important research questions.