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Thread: What kind of evidence do YOU (urban planners) need from us! (researchers)

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    What kind of evidence do YOU (urban planners) need from us! (researchers)

    As a researcher,
    I was left wondering:

    "As planners have a host of other factors to consider and can't hope to stay abreast of the latest research in the realm of behaviour, at least not as well as heallth researchers and practioners can, what is it that they need and want to know in order to carry out there jobs effectively (i.e,, to consider all options factors, to make recommendations, to support those recommendations).

    How should research be disseminated..heck, what types of research should be conducted and how should it be packaged?"

    While my interest has been in physical activity (which relates to active transport and recreation), perhaps you have analagous examples in other areas.

    Do you think this an important question to ask and would be fruitful to explore in a research project?...I know, ironic.
    In your experience have you faced enough challenges to suggest this? Are there questions that you have needed answered or alternatively, answers that have been USELESS

    Thanks.
    Last edited by sneakers; 07 Jan 2010 at 8:05 PM.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Bookmarked for cleverness. I can't contribute to your cause, but I'll be following this to use for myself in the coming years :P

  3. #3
    Sneakers,

    I appreciate your posting. I think what you are touching on is supremely important for the planning profession and, actually, the reason why I am trying to get into a PhD program in Environmental Psychology.

    I noticed during my undergrad that there were a lot of assumptions made of how people behave that were glossed over, and that merely perpetuated many "best practices" without calling on the planners to critically think through why they recommended a given design strategy.

    In other words, I saw this gap between the practices of planners and the actual research supporting such claims, and an over-reliance on case studies. Using case studies, I think, can be misleading, since it implies "if they did there, we can do it here," and it disregards WHY it "worked there," because the planners don't actually do real, scientific, rigorous research beyond community participation and survey-making. (Surely there are exceptions, but this is predominant in our profession.) Basically, planners often help implement policy to solve problems with a strategy that is not supported by research.

    I think there are many problems in planning degree curriculums (too much "generalization" for one) that perpetuate these problems. Mainly graduate degree planning curriculums, since these programs often merely give lip-service to learning real research skills, and don't demand that students both understand research and produce it, beyond the basic lets-all-put-this-survey-together assignment in class. Theses focus on case studies, policy papers, and community planning projects, which, in my mind, is a lot of busywork without a foundation.

    Anyway I could go on and on, and probably will, but I got to get to work.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Sneakers, I see you are focusing on physical activity, and chocolatechip I see you are looking at what I think is the psychological machinations behind activity, perhaps, and I have always thought that those things are very intertwined in our thinking and our acting ... probably to the point of it being so automatic most people rarely even realize it happens.

    For instance, as a woman, I choose not to run at 5 a.m. in my neighborhood, but rather in a gym on a treadmill (which I hate) when it is dark and I could potentially cross paths with strangers who are potentially up to no good.

    I do this not just b/c I'm female (but gender is a relevant factor), but b/c when I have gone out and run in the neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours, I have felt wary and uncomfortable - too many streetlights not functioning, too many hiding spots for attackers, too many yards with chain link fences and big dogs barking, and a few too many encounters with stray dogs large enough to make me find a new route on the fly.

    In short, both the built and natural environment and my own psychology affect my decision to run outdoors when it's dark.

    If I were male, I might not make the same decision - I might believe that I have the physical strength to overcome any would-be attacker, and further, I might not believe at all that I would be attacked, hence, nothing to prevent me from doing my run outdoors.

    Concurrently, if the street lighting were better, if there were fewer hiding spots, if the neighborhood itself was not falling into decline, I might not feel so threatened by the built and natural environment, and hit the pavement rather than the treadmill at my gym.

    So ... I think all in all, planners need to keep in mind that there is both the element of psychology working behind behavior, and the element of the built and natural environment affecting behavior.

    What might be helpful to planners, particularly those that serve in city and county Planning Departments, is to be kept abreast of studies that demonstrate these elements that affect behavior, and offer analysis or statistics that provide "teeth" for policy decisions affecting Zoning and Land Development Codes.

    Much of the time, planners seem to be left in the position where they must justify ordinance decisions by some type of statistical, research-based information. For instance, if research shows we as a nation have a 60+ percent obesity rate, then clearly our LDCs and Zoning requirements, as well as our capital improvement policies and decisions need to be geared to facilitate greater physical activity. We can cite the trends, create a section in a Comprehensive Plan that says we seek to promote the health and welfare of the public by vastly improving our public sidewalks and streetlighting standards, add bike lanes and promote mixed-use high-density development to combat the rising tide of obesity.

    Anyway - I don't want to go on and on, but basically, I think this is an important question that you pose, sneakers, and I hope that some other planners chime in.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    Sneakers,

    I appreciate your posting. I think what you are touching on is supremely important for the planning profession and, actually, the reason why I am trying to get into a PhD program in Environmental Psychology.
    An interesting book wrt EnvPsych is The Architecture of Happiness. Surely placemaking needs better inquiry into what makes places good, as this book implies. And I don't mean the placement of street furniture.

    Our built environment patterns must improve and be more responsive to natural forces and phenomena, but I doubt it will get implemented before our patterns radically change with the coming resource and climate constraints. So I'd say at a realistic scale, the work being done now on NU patterns and CSS patterns needs more empirical work. And both need more room for green infra., as that will be a key element and important factor here real soon, with the EPA smog ruling (and maybe CO2 enforcement), CA AB32, etc.

  6. #6
    To address the OP question more directly, I think it's a problem of dissemination of research.

    Fact is, most planners never take a glance--or even have access to--most of the architectural/planning/sociology journals. And if that's the only place that planning-related research appears, planners will never be exposed to it. Instead, it's the occasional APA conference presentation that might present and interpret research for application in the planning world. The problem with that however, is that most planners do not attend APA conferences, and APA conferences are filled with a lot of useless crap (a statement which I'm sure will illicit condemnatory responses, but one in which I believe in firmly) and not actual research. The better stuff is published in academic areas that everyday planners are hardly familiar with, such as Journal of Environmental Psychology, EDRA publications, and JAPA.

    Most information presented to planners, either in professional planning rags (eg Planning) or more journalistic-like magazines (eg Next American City) consists of either case-studies, or the trite musings of some twenty-year-old bicyclist living in a loft in the next gentrifying neighborhood.

    Now, I think case studies are a vital part of understanding how things work and gathering ideas. Case studies are great. BUT, they do not often constitute original, rigorous, well-designed research with clear validity and reliability. There are limits to how we can extrapolate the results of some planning effort in Atlanta or Oakland or Chattanooga to where we are now. Core research into how people actually behave in given circumstances and environments would oftentimes be more appropriate and useful, since they provide more universal principles than do the nuances of a random political environment in Anytown, USA. And as of now, I see no publication or association that disseminates that research to the more public realm of real-world planners.

  7. #7
    I agree with Colo, that there needs to be more empirical study on New Urbanist-like principles. Not so much because there are a lot of planners out there who need to be convinced its a better way to go (because these principles have been around longer than the CNU anyways and any planner worth his salt already recognizes a lot of them), but because planners need to be grounded in verifiable evidence so that what they say and do has more relevance and weight.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally posted by Gatrgal93 View post
    [

    For instance, as a woman, I choose not to run at 5 a.m. in my neighborhood, but rather in a gym on a treadmill (which I hate) when it is dark and I could potentially cross paths with strangers who are potentially up to no good.

    I do this not just b/c I'm female (but gender is a relevant factor), but b/c when I have gone out and run in the neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours, I have felt wary and uncomfortable - too many streetlights not functioning, too many hiding spots for attackers, too many yards with chain link fences and big dogs barking, and a few too many encounters with stray dogs large enough to make me find a new route on the fly.

    In short, both the built and natural environment and my own psychology affect my decision to run outdoors when it's dark.

    If I were male, I might not make the same decision - I might believe that I have the physical strength to overcome any would-be attacker, and further, I might not believe at all that I would be attacked, hence, nothing to prevent me from doing my run outdoors.

    Concurrently, if the street lighting were better, if there were fewer hiding spots, if the neighborhood itself was not falling into decline, I might not feel so threatened by the built and natural environment, and hit the pavement rather than the treadmill at my gym.

    So ... I think all in all, planners need to keep in mind that there is both the element of psychology working behind behavior, and the element of the built and natural environment affecting behavior.

    What might be helpful to planners, particularly those that serve in city and county Planning Departments, is to be kept abreast of studies that demonstrate these elements that affect behavior, and offer analysis or statistics that provide "teeth" for policy decisions affecting Zoning and Land Development Codes.

    Much of the time, planners seem to be left in the position where they must justify ordinance decisions by some type of statistical, research-based information. For instance, if research shows we as a nation have a 60+ percent obesity rate, then clearly our LDCs and Zoning requirements, as well as our capital improvement policies and decisions need to be geared to facilitate greater physical activity. We can cite the trends, create a section in a Comprehensive Plan that says we seek to promote the health and welfare of the public by vastly improving our public sidewalks and streetlighting standards, add bike lanes and promote mixed-use high-density development to combat the rising tide of obesity.

    Anyway - I don't want to go on and on, but basically, I think this is an important question that you pose, sneakers, and I hope that some other planners chime in.
    Actually, there has been some research on safety and physical activity and its not quite what you might think. One study I saw looked at low income young adults. It found that women tended to be outdoors regardless of safety - mostly because they had no choice. Young men were more likely to curtail their outside time because of safety, the authors think this is because poor young men are the most likely to be the targets of violence.

    This points up the fact that there needs to be more research and better ways of getting the research into the hands of people who can influence things.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I did a little research on physical activity and planning in a master's class, but it didn't amount to anything new. Most planners already know that higher density means more activity. The difference in the research was between measures of leisure activity and measures of transportation numbers compared to things like a persons BMI.

    I think if you're looking at physical activity, I would try to find out what influences people to be more active (as far as leisure activity). My question would run something like:
    If I build a trail/walking path what would make people use it more?
    Route
    Destination
    Features and Preferences (I like this path because?)

    It may be out there, I've just never really looked for it.

    I also think getting the information to the public at large and not just planners may help (who actually trusts the government planner - we're all commies).
    I can have the research in hand that apartments are safe places to live, but people think it's a den of thieves and can't get past that viewpoint no matter what a planner shows them. It's not just the planners, it's helping the planners to change public view.

    Also, just for a potentially interesting research topic - I think they started researching this in Canada - pollution levels at drive-thru restaurants to determine policy on how many restaurants can be at one intersection.
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    Now, I think case studies are a vital part of understanding how things work and gathering ideas. Case studies are great. BUT, they do not often constitute original, rigorous, well-designed research with clear validity and reliability.
    I suddenly got a vision of a research study I participated in while in college for one of my psychology classes ... answering 100 questions about how something made me feel, and then being told after answering the questionnaire/survey, that if your results were a certain way, it might be disturbing to you and you could come talk to the Psych Department folks any time about the meaning of the results. I never bothered to even get the report that said what the results were, I think. Sounded like it might have been too scary.

    Joking aside, I understand what you mean. Research isn't meaningful if it cannot be replicated. Perhaps planning education (MAURP, MUP programs) need to delve more into the design of research studies, etc. I've always thought that good planning needs ties to properly conducted research.


    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    Core research into how people actually behave in given circumstances and environments would oftentimes be more appropriate and useful, since they provide more universal principles than do the nuances of a random political environment in Anytown, USA.
    I agree; however politics is inextricably tied to planning. While sound research can be the teeth for a public policy decision, the political environment in which that decision gets made has an absolute effect on the direction of public policy decisions.

    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    And as of now, I see no publication or association that disseminates that research to the more public realm of real-world planners.
    Perhaps an undertaking for you - propose a new publication - get it out there to planners. I'd be interested in it!

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    Actually, there has been some research on safety and physical activity and its not quite what you might think. One study I saw looked at low income young adults. It found that women tended to be outdoors regardless of safety - mostly because they had no choice. Young men were more likely to curtail their outside time because of safety, the authors think this is because poor young men are the most likely to be the targets of violence.

    This points up the fact that there needs to be more research and better ways of getting the research into the hands of people who can influence things.
    That makes perfect sense for that sampling of the population. When I wasn't making as much money I did not have a gym membership and did in fact run in my neighborhood between about 5:45 and 7 a.m. I was never comfortable doing it.

    Now that I'm older and make more money, a gym membership is more affordable, so I joined one for my peace of mind. Mind you, I was never attacked or stalked - it's just the vibe, although the dog thing was scary at times - I came across quite a few loose dogs, and every time was very nervous about it.

    So try studying middle income 30-something women, and I bet that the results could be different. Our needs, perceptions, etc. all change over time, which also affects behavior. You potentially have a cohort difference with that being said.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by dvdneal View post
    Also, just for a potentially interesting research topic - I think they started researching this in Canada - pollution levels at drive-thru restaurants to determine policy on how many restaurants can be at one intersection.
    I guess there's more than one way to crack down on the epidemic of obesity.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    Your input inspired me!

    Since all of your input on this thread inpired my statment of intent, I thought I would share an initial draft piece of it in case any of you were interested.

    In fact, if you would be so kind as to provide your very candid comments it would be most appreciated.

    While I feel somewhat ok with it I do worry that it does not have a lot of the equisite planning language and breadth that other letters do

    I also wonder whether I have adequately walked the line between broad/theoretical/conceptual/diverse and practical/tangible in my topic area...basically is what I am saying coming across clearly and coherently, and concretely enough?

    Here it is (and thanks!):

    My interest lies at the critical interesection of urban planning with public health. By creating supportive urban environments for people to partake equitably in physically activity (PA), in the form of both transportation and recreation, planners play a vital and exciting role in addressing public health concerns associated with increasing sedentary behaviour and environmental degradation. While I have studied and promoted PA from a public health perspective through graduate level work in health promotion and behavioural sciences, I have come to view my present theoretical perspective as limiting because it fails to tangibly address fundamental neighbourhood-level factors that are supportive of PA. Such experiences have led me (back) to urban planning and your program in particular. Given its balance between theory and practice, and its focus on issues in the city of XXX, your program will provide me with the urban planning knowledge and skills that I need in order to re-enter the discipline and make a real difference in the home city that I love. Having spoken to its talented and multidisciplinary faculty, I know this program will provide me with a tremendous opportunity to marry my urban planning studies with my public health background in an innovative way. As these two fields are logically (re) converging in order to comprehensively address critical issues such as PA, your program will equip me very uniquely to meet the multidisciplinary challenges ahead. Ultimately I look forward to serving as a bridge between the two disciplines as a municipal planner and academic involved in a growing number of interdisciplinary initiatives aimed at promoting PA at municipal, provincial, national or even international levels.

    I look forward to exploring how land use diversity, desirable destinations, urban design features, equitable access to public transportation recreational resources, and even the mere view of green space may impact upon perceptions of and accessibility to PA within different neighbourhoods. Given the increasing importance of the PA and a growing body of public health research pointing to how it may be impacted upon by the built environment, knowledge translation to planners has become a critical issue (REF). I am interested in exploring how urban planners and public health researchers in the PA domain frame PA differently and: communicate that information to one another; are exposed to one another’s perspectives through educational curricula and ongoing training; and collaborate to promote PA within each of their respective domains Addressing one or a number of these topics in my graduate research project will inform a critical reflection as well as useful resource for those in the urban planning and public health fields. I am also interested in studying exciting initiatives in places such as YYY Region where ALL land development—not simply that subject to an Environmental Assessment-- is being statistically modeled as well as evaluated by public health officials for its potential impact upon PA levels. I would like to consider whether the more urbanized metropolitan area of XXX might be suitable for such an integrated measure, given that it does have the lowest rate of PA in the state/province (REF), or whether this would simply create an added bureaucracy given what is already being done to consider PA within the planning processes. Alternatively, might urban planners be part of initiatives aimed at addressing areas of the city that have recently been identified as having very low levels of PA, high rates of diabetes, and poor access to PA as measured by macro (e.g.., diversity of land use) and micro (e.g, sidewalk design and quality) level indices of the built environment (REF) . I would be interested in exploring what such an initiative might look like.

    My pursuits in the graduate program and beyond will be rooted in a solid base of work examining and promoting the benefits of PA…..continues on to my background

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    in letter, PA is short form for physical activity!!!!!

    In the letter, PA is short form for physical activity!!!!!

  15. #15
    This is a very minor point, but why do you put words or prefixes like "back" and "re-" in parentheses? I've seen this with another SOP on here and it detracts from the better parts of your essay. These things might look nice on an architecture student's trendy poster, but not for a well-written essay. If you do, in fact, mean "such experiences have led me back to urban planning," then say it that way. Using parentheses makes it less professional, and also puts into question whether you really mean what you are saying.

    Also, it seems your essay is a little wordy. You have a lot of good ideas but you are not communicating them as clearly as you could. Review your sentences for unnecessary clauses.

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