Research implementation

Simple, yet profound, ideas for turning science into action on healthy urban design


Great science does not lead, by itself, to great policy. It has been clear for decades that car-dependent community design undermines levels of physical activity, but such communities continue to be built at large scale.

Researchers have therefore turned the lens of science back on itself, asking: what methods work to translate findings into policy? A 2016 paper in the Lancet, “Use of Science to Guide City Planning Policy and Practice,” lays out some of those strategies. It describes three steps for developing research that will create change. The solutions are both obvious and far-too underused:

  1. Talk to policymakers before doing research to find out what kind of research questions would be most useful for justifying action.
  2. Use methods that make intuitive sense to policymakers, such as studying real-world outcomes for cities with distinct policies.
  3. Communicate the results in a way that will reach policy makers and that will make sense to them.

The paper describes a number of major efforts that have used these strategies to translate research into reality. A particularly compelling example is New York City’s Active Design Guidelines, which identifies dozens of features that can support physical activity on streets and in buildings. Each feature is labelled in terms of its current level of scientific confidence: strong evidence, emerging evidence, and best practice. That is the kind of menu of options policy makers can easily act on.

This approach could create a valuable feedback loop between those with the ability to implement policy, and those with the ability to research its impact. While the goal is to better implement recommendations, the process would also help dissolve the barrier between decision makers and researchers, two cultures that too rarely interact.

Photo Credit: Bob Jagendorf