BACKGROUND: There are few robust natural experimental studies of improving urban green spaces on physical activity and wellbeing. The aim of this controlled natural experimental study was to examine the impact of green space improvements along an urban canal on canal usage, physical activity and two other wellbeing behaviours (social interactions and taking notice of the environment) among adults in Greater Manchester, UK. The intervention included resurfaced footpaths, removal of encroaching vegetation, improved entrances, new benches and signage.
METHODS: Two comparison sites were matched to the intervention site using a systematic five-step process, based on eight correlates of physical activity at the neighbourhood (e.g. population density) and site (e.g. lighting) levels. Outcomes were assessed using systematic observations at baseline, and 7, 12 and 24 months post-baseline. The primary outcome was the change in the number of people using the canal path from baseline to 12 months. Other outcomes were changes in physical activity levels (Sedentary, Walking, Vigorous), Connect and Take Notice behaviours. Data were analysed using multilevel mixed-effects negative binomial regression models, comparing outcomes in the intervention group with the matched comparison group, controlling for day, time of day and precipitation. A process evaluation assessed potential displacement of activity from a separate existing canal path using intercept surveys and observations.
RESULTS: The total number of people observed using the canal path at the intervention site increased more than the comparison group at 12 months post-baseline (IRR 2.10, 95% CI 1.79-2.48); there were similar observed increases at 7 and 24 months post-baseline. There was some evidence that the intervention brought about increases in walking and vigorous physical activity, social interactions, and people taking notice of the environment. The process evaluation suggested that there was some displacement of activity, but the intervention also encouraged existing users to use the canal more often.
CONCLUSIONS: Urban canals are promising settings for interventions to encourage green space usage and potentially increase physical activity and other wellbeing behaviours. Interventions that improve access to green corridors along canals and provide separate routes for different types of physical activities may be particularly effective and warrant further research.
STUDY PROTOCOL: Study protocol published in Open Science Framework in July 2018 before the first follow-up data collection finished ( https://osf.io/zcm7v ). Date of registration: 28 June 2018.