A cross-disciplinary team at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln has earned a National Science Foundation award to study how environmental conditions affect the physiological response of pedestrians.
The project, “Human-Centric Sensing Platform to Assess Neighborhood Physical Disorder,” is led by Changbum Ahn, assistant professor of construction engineering, and Yunwoo Nam, associate professor of community and regional planning. They will measure how negative environmental conditions – such as sidewalk defects, graffiti, broken windows and peeling paint – can impact a neighborhood’s health and safety.
Nam and Ahn are seeking to change how community planners, non-profits and various governmental agencies assess neighborhoods.
Traditionally, the approach of community assessments involved visual audits and perception surveys. However, the collaborators are seeking to include more evidence-based research data in the development of additional assessment tools. The pilot research project intends to measure a participant’s physiological responses by collecting data through the use of a smart phone and sensors.
The phone is synced with inertial measurement unit motion sensors attached to the participant’s right ankle to measure gait stability and walking patterns and sensors on the wrist and earlobe to measure heart rate and skin temperature. Location information will be detected by Global Positioning System technology in the phone.
Together, this technology has the capacity to let researchers ascertain problem areas in a neighborhood based on the physiological data. For example, if 20 of their test subjects happen upon a pothole, at that precise GPS location, a statistically significant number of the participants might show an increased heart rate, a fluctuation in gait or even a skin temperature variance, enough to establish a common pattern.
“Though we know our physiological responses are directly related to our physical environment, no one has actually measured or assessed it, particularly in connection with the community outdoor environment,” Nam said. “We can assume some visible characteristics or physical obstacles in the community environment may cause more distress or impact our physiological responses, but maybe not, because we’ve never tested it. That is a significant research gap, and the NSF is interested in our pursuit of those research questions.”
The first year of this two-year research project is intended to verify the research approach, framework and methodology. The second year will focus on field-testing of the methodology in selected Lincoln neighborhoods.
Other research options include deeper examination of participant demographics and their results and how they differ from each other in response to environmental stimuli.
“Perhaps elderly will have different physiological responses to environmental disorders than, let’s say, millennials,” Nam said. “These types of questions can’t be answered using our traditional types of visual analysis.”
In the future, the research may expand to include a health component and perhaps computer science, said Nam and Ahn.
Long-term, Ahn said he hopes this project will close the knowledge gap and broaden the understanding of how humans respond physiologically to their environment.
Nam said the overall ambitions of the project is to create a better community experience.
“I hope the community employs our recommendations and makes the needed changes to make our neighborhoods more walkable,” Nam said. “My aspirations for this research are that eventually, it will be used to create better, safer and healthier neighborhoods.
“The development of more walkable communities is one effective way to encourage active living and a healthy community. The way we design and build our communities can and will affect a resident’s quality of life.”