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Active Friendly Environments Project

Active Friendly Environments Project

18 May 2014

The Active Friendly Environments Project is a 2004-2006 pilot study coordinated by North Shore City Council (NSCC) supported through Sport New Zealand investment.

The Active Friendly Environments project is a pilot study coordinated by NSCC supported through Sport NZ investment. The study commenced in August 2004 and was completed in 2006.


The rationale behind the project is that physical inactivity is now a leading modifiable cause of disease in most developed countries. As such, increasing physical activity is a national priority in these countries, including New Zealand.

Internationally, environmental design has been identified as a key determinant in sustainable physical activity participation. But there has been little research undertaken examining the associations between physical activity participation and the local urban environment in a New Zealand context.

The objective of Active Friendly Environments is to take a local context (North Shore) and understand how people perceive their physical environment and how this influences the level of physical activity that they undertake within it. Active Friendly Environments poses and provides answers to questions such as:

  • 'What are the perceived and real environmental barriers to physical activity?'
  • 'If we are working with national and local social marketing initiatives to increase physical activity through behaviour change, what evidence do we have that the built environment will support or encourage that behaviour change?'

Project partners described the need for the project to directly inform policy, planning and practice, and to provide a research model for other councils or interested parties to adopt.

The Active Friendly Environments research report links the research findings to the day-to-day business of the NSCC work groups including:

  • Parks and Open Space Planning
  • Transport and Roading
  • Leisure Services
  • Community Services
  • Strategy and Policy (district plan and urban planning and design)
  • Environmental Services (regulatory).

This case study takes a brief look at the partnership through which the project was delivered and the innovative combination of research methods. It also focuses on the findings and recommendations and how they are being applied across NSCC work groups and elsewhere.

Partnership and operations

The Active Friendly Environments project partners are:

  • Sport NZ
  • Auckland University of Technology (AUT)
  • NSCC
  • Harbour Sport.

A steering group was established to guide and oversee the project. The partners agreed to work collectively on all aspects of the study so that the project team and partners could learn and build capability throughout the process. The project was also linked to each partner's strategic planning documents, including NSCC's Long-Term Council Community Plan (LTCCP), Community Outcomes and Activity Statements.

All partners contributed either financially or through staff resource and goods in kind. Partners who possessed particular skills provided training to other partners. For example, Harbour Sport staff were upskilled by AUT in the management of focus groups to ensure they gained robust and sound research data.

Sport NZ was an investment partner through the Active Communities Investment Scheme. NSCC led the project. AUT was commissioned to undertake the study of physical activity sites, physical activity behaviours and perceptions of residents in North Shore City. Harbour Sport ran the focus groups.

The project team members completed all of this work internally, with the exception of using an external contractor (Gravitas) for the phone survey.

Research techniques/data collection

The Active Friendly Environments study identifies the environmental, urban design, access barriers and motivators for getting people more regularly active. The aim of the study is to test people's perceptions of how easy it is to access physical activity facilities and open space, and to understand their walking, cycling and public transport behaviours for local trips.

To collect the data and information the research consisted of these five stages:

  • literature review
  • focus groups
  • population survey (computer-aided telephone interviews)
  • facilities audit
  • GIS mapping and analysis.

This information examined both subjective (personal views about what activity options are out there) and objective (the facts) measures of the environment. By bringing the two measures together it was possible to identify differences between individual perceptions and the actual environment. It also helped with understanding both the real and perceived barriers.

To achieve this, the study combined surveys of North Shore residents (asking what they think is out there) with audits of facilities and local environments (what is actually out there). It used a GIS database to map this information, utilising a range of existing GIS data sets and measures of walkability.

Findings and recommendations

Each of the different methods of data collection reported different findings. The report's recommendations are:

  • An accessible and timely information channel would help residents with engaging in more structured physical activity.
  • Perceptions of the transport infrastructure in North Shore City are generally negative. Further work needs to be undertaken to understand the current infrastructure in relation to best practice.
  • Information promoting sites should have strong local focus, but should also extend to the wider region.
  • Enhancing the aesthetics of the local environment will facilitate physical activity engagement.
  • Promotion of parks and beaches may be an effective strategy for increasing their usage and levels of health-related physical activity.
  • Future work should seek to develop interventions which promote transport-related physical activity modes, as there is a high level of recognition for transport-related physical activity engagement, yet most respondents still travel by car.
  • High street connectivity is a key urban design feature in the promotion of physical activity engagement and needs to be considered in future neighbourhood developments.
  • Urban design planning should seek to limit commute distances and increase street network connectivity to promote transport-related physical activity engagement.

Linking the research findings with specific business activities and units within NSCC

The Active Friendly Environments project is being used to inform the LTCCP Activity Statements for Parks, Open Space, Transport and Roading, Community Liaison and Leisure Services. The following extracts from the report demonstrate the links made between the research and the day-to-day business of these NSCC work groups.

Parks and open space

The findings of the study support the following outcomes for which the NSCC Parks Department is directly responsible. It undertakes to:

  • provide more and improve existing recreational cycle-ways and walkways including linkages
  • promote awareness of the city's recreational opportunities and events
  • ensure parks and open spaces are Active Friendly Environments and easily accessible to users
  • build significant coastal and estuarine walkways and boardwalks
  • build recreational walkways that link communities, street to street
  • provide attractive street environments and public spaces in town centres and areas of intensive development.

Transport and roading

The findings of the study support the following outcomes for which the Transport and Roading departments are directly responsible. It undertakes to:

  • co-ordinate Community and Active Friendly Environments Mapping to ensure information is well integrated
  • provide more walkways and cycle-ways around the city
  • provide footpaths that are wide enough to cater for pedestrians and cyclists
  • continue to promote alternative modes of transport such as ferries, buses, cycle-ways and walkways
  • ensure land planning is integrated with transport planning
  • build recreational walkways that link communities, street to street
  • plan for alternative transport users by improving the footpaths and surfacing of walking areas
  • ensure that transport infrastructure incorporates personal Active Friendly Environments through design
  • provide attractive street environments and public spaces in town centres and areas of intensive development.

Leisure services

The findings of the study support the following outcomes for which Leisure Services are directly responsible. It undertakes to:

  • promote awareness of the city's recreational opportunities and events
  • actively encourage the development of multi-use facilities and amalgamations of single-use facilities
  • provide recreational 'precincts', that is, public spaces that have a range of facilities and activities for all age groups and needs
  • provide affordable sport and recreational facilities
  • develop and implement the Physical Activity Strategy including maintaining and strengthening working relationships with organisations representing health, sport, education and community.

Community liaison

The survey questions were modelled on Sport NZ's 'Obstacles to Action' questionnaire which allows the results of local surveys to be compared to the national results. The study is also aligned with North Harbour Physical Activity Strategy and Auckland Regional Physical Activity Strategy objectives.

A key message arising from the study is the low level of awareness in the community of the many physical activity opportunities that exist. The requirement is not only for the establishment of promotional tools and materials but, more importantly, that these be sustained over time with adequate resources, ensuring they are kept current and responsive.

Strategy and policy

The study findings show a need to prioritise aesthetics and high design standards in the planning of public open spaces, including roads. The success of parks and roads as physical activity environments is dependent on their integration with the adjacent built environment at the neighbourhood level.

Environmental services

The study makes a clear finding about the correlation between a connected street network and physical activity uptake. Subdivision planners should take this into account when assessing future applications.

Human resources

The study is useful to this department's workplace health and well-being goals as it focuses on transport-related physical activity in relation to places of work.


The study findings and recommendations stress the need for more public information on the physical activity sites and facilities within the city. It recommends the development of a specific website to disseminate this information.

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