A partnered approach for structured observation to assess the environment of a neighborhood with high diabetes rates

Prog Community Health Partnersh. Fall 2011;5(3):249-59. doi: 10.1353/cpr.2011.0036.


Background: The Communities IMPACT Diabetes Center uses partnered methods to address diabetes-related conditions among African Americans and Latinos in East Harlem, New York.

Objectives: To describe a novel, partnered approach that integrates simultaneous structured observation by community and academic partners with "on-the-spot" resolution of differences to collect baseline data regarding the built and food environments in a two census tract area of East Harlem and present select findings.

Methods: We designed an environmental assessment to explore characteristics of the environment related to walking and eating. We paired community and academic partners to assess each block, resolve any differences, and report results. Nearly one year later, we surveyed the data collectors and analyzed responses using standard qualitative methods.

Results: Key themes included connection to and characteristics of the community; interactions with partners; surprises and learning, and aspects of data collection. All but the first were common to academic and community partners. Relationships between partners were generally amiable. Both community-"I think it was very helpful, we made sure neither of us made mistakes, and helped each other when we could"-and academic-"I really enjoyed it . . . I learned a lot about the areas I surveyed"-partners were complimentary. Community partners' strengths included local knowledge of the community, whereas academic partners' focus on adherence to the specifications was critical. Structured observation identified many sidewalks in disrepair or obstructed, few benches, and highly variable times allocated for pedestrians to cross at cross walks.

Conclusions: The partnered data collection was both successful and formative, building additional relationships and further capacity for ongoing partnership. Community partners saw their community in a new way, seeing, "little things that are important but people don't pay attention to." Structured observations added to our understanding of how an environment may contribute to diabetes.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • African Americans*
  • Community-Based Participatory Research
  • Diabetes Mellitus / ethnology*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / prevention & control
  • Environment*
  • Female
  • Food Supply
  • Health Care Coalitions / organization & administration*
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Hispanic Americans*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Program Evaluation
  • Qualitative Research
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Walking*
  • Young Adult