Walking in the city: environmental attributes and judgments of attractiveness and security in urban walking environments

Bernasconi, Claudia, Harold Greene, and Alan Hoback

Increased dependency on vehicular transportation has given rise to a wide range of issues in the domain of social interaction and human health, affecting whole communities in the great majority of American towns and suburban areas. The acknowledgement of the general low quality of urban walking environments has led to increased research in this field. This study stems from an ongoing investigation on walkability, i.e. the ability of the built environment to promote and support walking (Jacobs, 1995). Studies on walkability (e.g. Ferreira and Sanchez, 1998; Sarkar, 1993) refer to different sets of characteristics including five key descriptors: attractiveness, orientation, comfort, safety, and security.  In our research we focused on two key walkability descriptors, attractiveness and security, due to the characteristics of the selected corridor. The goal of this research project was to understand which environmental attributes observers look at in order to make judgments on attractiveness and security in urban walking environments. We utilized an eye-tracking tool that allowed us to monitor eye fixations, i.e. the spots in the picture the eye is focusing on. Whereas in traditional landscape evaluation methods respondents’ ratings of scenes reflect the product of mental processing of a scene, eye fixations reveal in more detail what aspects of the scene were of interest (i.e. selected objects or areas). As noted by Yarbus (1967) exploratory eye movements typically reflect our intentions, therefore we explored how eye movements differ with the intention of when people make judgments about aesthetics and security. In our experiment we hypothesized differences in eye fixation duration for different areas in the scenes depending on question (level of attractiveness or of security). We asked study participants to view and rate nine urban scenes on a computer screen on a five-point Likert scale. Scenes were selected within a major urban corridor and portrayed different conditions in terms of presence of vegetation, amount of visible buildings, amount of visible street pavement, type of sidewalk. Maintenance levels were also considered in scene selection. Results confirm the hypothesis and indicate significant differences in attention to interest areas. Findings will be discussed together with considerations of the applicability of eye-tracking techniques to landscape assessments and to walkability research. Findings also provide valuable insights for planners, designers and those professionals in the field of pedestrian transportation.