Cover: Results From a Natural Experiment

Results From a Natural Experiment

Initial Neighbourhood Investments Do Not Change Objectively-Assessed Physical Activity, Psychological Distress or Perceptions of the Neighbourhood

Published in: International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, Volume 16, Issue 29 (2019). doi: 10.1186/s12966-019-0793-6

Posted on Jun 10, 2019

by Tamara Dubowitz, Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar, Andrea S. Richardson, Natalie Colabianchi, Robin L. Beckman, Gerald P. Hunter, Jennifer Sloan, Alvin Kristian Nugroho, Rebecca L. Collins


Few studies have assessed objectively measured physical activity (PA), active transportation, psychological distress and neighborhood perceptions among residents of a neighborhood before and after substantial improvements in its physical environment. Also, most research-to-date has employed study designs subject to neighborhood selection, which may introduce bias in reported findings. We built upon a previously enrolled cohort of households from two low-income predominantly African American Pittsburgh neighborhoods, matched on socio-demographic composition including race/ethnicity, income and education. One of the two neighborhoods received substantial neighborhood investments over the course of this study including, but not limited to public housing development and greenspace/landscaping. We implemented a natural experiment using matched intervention and control neighborhoods and conducted pre-post assessments among the cohort. Our comprehensive assessments included accelerometry-based PA, active transportation, psychological distress and perceptions of the neighborhood, with assessments conducted both prior to and following the neighborhood changes. In 2013, we collected data from 1003 neighborhood participants and in 2016, we re-interviewed 676 of those participants. We conducted an intent to treat analysis, with a difference-in-difference estimator using attrition weighting to account for nonresponse between 2013 and 2016. In addition, we derived an individual-level indicator of exposure to neighbourhood investment and estimated effect of exposure to investment on the same set of outcomes using covariate-adjusted models.


We observed no statistically significant differences in activity, psychological distress, satisfaction with one's neighborhood as a place to live or any of the other measures we observed prior to and after the neighborhood investments between the intervention and control neighborhoods or those exposed vs not exposed to investments.


Using this rigorous study design, we observed no significant changes in the intervention neighborhood above and beyond secular trends present in the control neighborhood. Although neighborhood investment may have other benefits, we failed to see improvement in PA, psychological distress or related outcomes in the low-income African American neighborhoods in our study. This may be an indication that improvements in the physical environment may not directly translate into improvements in residents' physical activity or health outcomes without additional individual-level interventions. It is also possible that these investments were not dramatic enough to spur change within the three year period. Additional studies employing similar design with other cohorts in other settings are needed to confirm these results.

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