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Supportive Environments for Active Living?: A Case Study of Local Government Discourses of the Built and Social Environments and Physical Activity

Abstract
Lack of physical activity among New Zealanders is typically regarded as a serious public health concern. Surveys indicate that a considerable proportion of the population fail to engage in even modest amounts. As well as conferring health benefits, leading an active life can help to build social capital, achieve manual tasks, enhance enjoyment, and reduce traffic congestion and pollution. The research of physical activity in New Zealand is, therefore, important. Many factors influence physical activity behaviour, but traditionally there has been a focus on individual-level behaviour-change approaches. In recent years research has started to focus more on characteristics of physical and social environments, such as provision of cycle paths and development of community social cohesion. Concerned by what I observed to be an over-emphasis by New Zealand agencies on encouraging individual behaviour change, I set out to examine the factors that contributed to the shaping of built and social environments, and their effects on population physical activity. Identifying a gap in the research, I examined these factors via a case study of the Hamilton City Council (HCC). My study employed Foucauldian 'tools' to examine selected HCC documents and interview transcripts with a view to identifying the discourses underpinning local government action with regard to built and social environments and physical activity. In this process I interviewed seven HCC staff members from six relevant departments, including Parks and Gardens, Community Development, and Roading and Transportation. Data was gathered from the staff members using semi-structured interviews, based on pre-prepared guidelines, developed following a review of relevant literature. Relevant HCC strategy and planning documents were selected only after interviews were completed and included their urban design, transportation, creativity and identity and social well-being strategies. I adopted a Foucauldian perspective to analyse the data because I wanted to examine the phenomena of increased physical inactivity by questioning particular 'ways of knowing' and 'truths'. Such an examination, at the level of local government, could help reveal why some cities are more conducive to active living than others. This theoretical approach helped reveal a number of underpinning discourses, including discourses of economic rationality; the council as nurturer; safety and surveillance; participative government; and work efficiency. Key discourses of economic rationality and participative government were pervasive in both the interviews and documents, highlighting the degree to which economic considerations and consultative practices dominate local government actions. My four main findings were that HCC is shaped by and shapes certain discourses; HCC activities are contingent upon many factors outside their control; the creation of supportive environments for active living is a complex task; and, that dominating discourses can silence or obscure other equally valid discourses. These findings gave rise to discursive effects. Firstly, local authority planning, strategizing and action can promote population behaviour control by facilitating resident self-regulation. Secondly, factors outside the control of local authorities can impact on their ability to realise active living goals. Lastly, valid but silenced 'ways of knowing' about physical activity, health, and governance can constrain population physical activity participation. I found that HCC actions were reflective of the discourses identified, illustrating wider societal concerns regarding physical inactivity, obesity, citizenship, economic success, 'democratic' practices, and efficiency. This study contributes to population physical activity research by recognising the value of environmental approaches, but underscoring the need to consider the sources, mechanisms of maintenance, and effects of discourses circulating in local government using appropriate theoretical approaches.
Type
Thesis
Type of thesis
Series
Citation
Ryks, T. (2008). Supportive Environments for Active Living?: A Case Study of Local Government Discourses of the Built and Social Environments and Physical Activity (Thesis, Master of Science (MSc)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/2523
Date
2008
Publisher
The University of Waikato
Supervisors
Rights
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