City residents see crime as barrier to physical activity

Residents of low-income San Francisco neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin and Bayview have less access to recreational opportunities like parks and gyms, but they also say that crime is a major barrier to their ability to be physically active, according to a new analysis by SF State.

A photo of Professor of Kinesiology Susan Zieff.

Professor of Kinesiology Susan Zieff held focus groups with city officials and residents of low-income areas.

Residents of six low-income areas with few resources for physical activity reported that both violent and street-level crimes kept them from feeling safe as they walked in their neighborhoods. Many residents also said that unappealing surroundings -- from auto emissions covering surfaces inside apartments, to trash and drug paraphernalia on the sidewalks -- made them less likely to walk or be active in the areas.

SF State Kinesiology Professor Susan Zieff conducted a study of resident perceptions and needs as part of her collaboration with Shape Up SF, a city government initiative to build healthier environments for San Francisco residents.  The report is unusual in that it also focused on how local policymakers responded to the neighborhood concerns. Zieff's findings are available now online and in print in the November issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

"In general, people are really on the same page," Zieff said. "There was not too much disagreement about the goal of increasing physical activity access as a desirable public health and community goal. The areas of divergence were more of a negotiation about the best ways to proceed by introducing or revising current policies or by increased education through available recreational and public health outlets."

Zieff and colleagues spoke with nine focus groups from the Excelsior, Chinatown, Tenderloin, South of Market, Bayview and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods. Residents of many of these neighborhoods -- many of them ethnic minorities living in low-income households -- are less likely to have access to physical activity facilities, studies show.

"There are exceptions however, as the residents of Chinatown and Visitacion Valley use large public parks free of cost and conveniently located in their neighborhoods," Zieff said.

It's difficult to be physically active in neighborhoods such as the Bayview, Tenderloin and South of Market, residents suggested, because the surroundings are dangerous, dirty and lacking safe and affordable facilities "There are times when I say, 'All right, I'd love to go for a walk,' and then I think to where?" said one Tenderloin resident.

City employees from the departments of Public Health, Planning, Recreation and Parks and others shared many of the same concerns. They agreed that the quality of the streets could discourage recreation, and noted that these neighborhoods offer fewer recreational facilities compared to wealthier city neighborhoods.

Zieff said street connectivity is among the pedestrian-related issues that the city is working on now to address the concerns raised by these focus group participants.

Some residents seemed to be unaware of low-cost facilities and activities in their neighborhood, Zieff found, which suggests "there may be a gap in the marketing and messaging used to inform residents about available resources for residents with limited finances."

Zieff said she was pleased that people seemed to have the idea that there are a range of activities -- from gardening to working out at the YMCA -- that count as physical activity. "In some ways, they had a more applied and broader understanding of physical activity compared to the sometimes narrower view of policymakers."

Zieff played a lead role in crafting Shape Up SF's 2010 policy recommendations for improving the city's environment for physical activity, and she noted that "an increased level of integration between city departments is critical" to addressing the residents' concerns.

"Once policymakers share an understanding of what counts as physical activity and ways that additional opportunities can be created in diverse environments," said Zieff, "San Francisco will truly be a city in which physical activity is available, convenient and safe for everyone."

-- University Communications