May 09, 2011

Micro Meets Macro: Walking in Your Community

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

One of the first lessons of sociology is recognizing the difference between micro and macro level phenomena. (Micro refers to small-scale, individual or small group interactions, while macro refers to large scale processes).

But how the two overlap and intersect is equally as important. Walking is a great way to understand the relationship between micro and macro level phenomena.

Micro-level issues include personal motivations, identity, the body, and our interactions with people around us: all of which walking reflects. Whether a person is physically able to walk might be a core part of their identity, especially if an accident or illness changes one’s status from ambulatory to wheelchair-bound. Being able to walk again can become a person’s central focus; walking might become redefined as a victory. clip_image002

There are numerous other micro-level implications of walking, like one’s weight. Someone who would rather walk up a flight of stairs or two instead of waiting for an elevator is making a personal preference, maybe based on their level of impatience (if the elevators take a long time), the influence of others (will people give you a dirty looks for pressing “2” on the elevator?), or their own physical abilities.

One example of where micro meets macro: the impact of many people’s decisions not to walk contributes to obesity rates, which impact health care costs.

There are many other macro-level issues that influence whether and where people walk. How walkable is your neighborhood? Do your local streets have sidewalks? Crosswalks? Traffic lights that promote pedestrian safety?clip_image006

Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives, discuss how the American infatuation with cars has shaped the way communities are created and the subsequent impact on our daily lives—and wallets as gas prices surge. As new developments spring up farther away from central cities (as I discussed in a post about suburbanizing rural areas), walking becomes less and less a part of daily life.

Despite living in Los Angeles, a city known for its car culture (and the song “Walking in L.A.” with lyrics like “only a nobody walks in LA”), I happen to live in a very walkable neighborhood. I am within blocks of my bank, the post office, grocery store, drug store, post office, and several great restaurants. It is also in an area of the city with very low crime rates; less than 2 percent of the city’s violent crime takes place in my neighborhood.

I do a lot of walking, but many others do not. There are three elementary schools within a few blocks of clip_image008my home, and during school start and end times the traffic can be terrible. Granted, not everyone lives as close as I do, but since many people do live within a mile radius it is surprising to see so few children walking to school.

Of those that do walk, most except the high-school age kids are accompanied by parents. Part of the reason few kids walk to school alone is fear that children will be victims of crime.

This pattern is not limited to my neighborhood; nationwide relatively few children walk to school regularly. Responding to concerns that this has contributed to America’s obesity problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report on long-term trends regarding walking to school.

As you can see from the graph below, the percent of students 5-18 walking or biking to school declined between 1969 and 2001:


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

One reason for this shift is that kids tend to live farther away from school than they did in the 1960s. In 1969 one-third lived three miles away or more, while in 2001 half of all students lived at least three miles from school. By contrast, a third of all students lived less than a mile away from school in 1969, while only about one in five did in 2001.

These changes are likely the result of many factors: for example, community developments in once rural areas have lower population density than older communities, and many districts began busing for desegregation purposes.

As the CDC report notes, increased fear of crime and kidnapping in particular are likely a reason that parents are less comfortable allowing kids to walk to school, despite the fact that both have actually declined in recent years. Children’s violent victimization rates fell from 80 per thousand in 1973 to 50 per thousand in 2003, according to the report. In my book Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions about Today’s Youth, I discuss how the growth of cable news and online news helps foster fears that the world is more unsafe today, despite dramatic declines in crime in recent years.

The pervasive—although misplaced— fear that children are in more danger than ever is a macro-level phenomenon that shapes individual behaviors, like walking. On the positive side, kids are slightly less likely to die in traffic-related deaths while walking compared with the past.


Source: Centers for Disease Control

Macro-level issues, like social changes, policies, and large-scale trends shape our individual choices, beliefs, and behaviors whether we are aware of them or not. What other example of an overlap between macro-micro can you think of?


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I also think that more walking would be good because then people would get to know others in the community. A community can be very beneficial and important to one's life. It is kind of like a family. People in communities care about each other, and it would be good for more people to really get to know the rest of their communities. This would probably reduce crime and make a much happier living area.
-Ashley Byykkonen

I feel that walking is one of the best things ever. When you're in a hurry however sometimes you need to just do what's fastest. However, children walking less has to do with the safety issues that many parents have today with people grabbing little kids.

Wheelchair bound is seen as perjorative...maybe there is a better term for the non-walkers

One thing I really loved about living in the city was that you could walk so many places and that you saw other people out and about. The only time I see people walking around my suburban neighbor en mass is Halloween. The kids get drive to school even if they live blocks away. And we wonder why our children are overweight...
Ellyn Deuink

@ Catherine, you are right. There should be a phrase that encompasses everyone. I've tried but I can't think of one yet.

Macro-level trends, like having a car and having your parents drive you to school, do affect micro-level decisions. Only these days, our way of going to school doesn't seem to be a decision anymore. It's as if these things are already a given, and walking to school (or to other places) seems like a peculiar choice. It's good to hear that your neighborhood is walkable. And it takes macro-changes to make an environment that's safe, even for kids.

Thank you very much., You are a good writer.

Missing Persons, grown up with this band. love all their songs. Walking In L.A. my favorite Missing Persons track.

This is indeed a great read Karen Sternheimer. I enjoyed every bit of it.
My contribution is in terms of an example of micro- meets- macro. In the case of mobile phones and the financial markets in Africa. Almost all adults in Kenya right now own mobile phones which they obtain due to personal preferences that include communication, gaming, photography or as a status symbol (high-end Vs budget). However, at a macro level, mobile phones have brought a revolution in the financial sector and brought millions of unbanked Kenyans into the formal financial management system hence impacting on overall economic development in many ways.

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