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Open Access Research

Standardized observation of neighbourhood disorder: does it work in Canada?

Janet A Parsons12*, Gita Singh3, Allison N Scott4, Rosane Nisenbaum45, Priya Balasubramaniam8, Amina Jabbar4, Qamar Zaidi4, Amanda Sheppard67, Jason Ramsay9, Patricia O'Campo45 and James Dunn45

Author Affiliations

1 Applied Health Research Centre, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, Canada

2 Department of Physical Therapy, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

3 Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Markham-Stouffville Hospital, Toronto, Canada

4 Centre for Research on Inner City Health, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, Canada

5 Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

6 Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

7 Cancer Care Ontario, Toronto, Canada

8 FutureHealth Inc., Toronto, Canada

9 Neurorehabilitation Program, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Toronto, Canada

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International Journal of Health Geographics 2010, 9:6  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-9-6

Published: 10 February 2010

Abstract

Background

There is a growing body of evidence that where you live is important to your health. Despite numerous previous studies investigating the relationship between neighbourhood deprivation (and structure) and residents' health, the precise nature of this relationship remains unclear. Relatively few investigations have relied on direct observation of neighbourhoods, while those that have were developed primarily in US settings. Evaluation of the transferability of such tools to other contexts is an important first step before applying such instruments to the investigation of health and well-being. This study evaluated the performance of a systematic social observational (SSO) tool (adapted from previous studies of American and British neighbourhoods) in a Canadian urban context.

Methods

This was a mixed-methods study. Quantitative SSO ratings and qualitative descriptions of 176 block faces were obtained in six Toronto neighbourhoods (4 low-income, and 2 middle/high-income) by trained raters. Exploratory factor analysis was conducted with the quantitative SSO ratings. Content analysis consisted of independent coding of qualitative data by three members of the research team to yield common themes and categories.

Results

Factor analysis identified three factors (physical decay/disorder, social accessibility, recreational opportunities), but only 'physical decay/disorder' reflected previous findings in the literature. Qualitative results (based on raters' fieldwork experiences) revealed the tool's shortcomings in capturing important features of the neighbourhoods under study, and informed interpretation of the quantitative findings.

Conclusions

This study tested the performance of an SSO tool in a Canadian context, which is an important initial step before applying it to the study of health and disease. The tool demonstrated important shortcomings when applied to six diverse Toronto neighbourhoods. The study's analyses challenge previously held assumptions (e.g. social 'disorder') regarding neighbourhood social and built environments. For example, neighbourhood 'order' has traditionally been assumed to be synonymous with a certain degree of homogeneity, however the neighbourhoods under study were characterized by high degrees of heterogeneity and low levels of disorder. Heterogeneity was seen as an appealing feature of a block face. Employing qualitative techniques with SSO represents a unique contribution, enhancing both our understanding of the quantitative ratings obtained and of neighbourhood characteristics that are not currently captured by such instruments.