Citizen Science to Promote Physical Activity in a Low-SES Neighborhood in the Netherlands

Groningen, the Netherlands (January 2020-December 2023)

Project Goal

  1. Innovate the whole process of community engagement while working on an exercise-friendly neighborhood 
  2. Gain insight into features contributing to or impeding exercise-friendliness of the neighborhood
  3. For citizens to work in a co-creation process and develop ideas and prototypes based on the data they collected 


Guiding Question 

What makes it easy or hard to exercise or lead an active lifestyle in your community? What are your wishes for neighborhood improvement?

Project Description

A large health problem is present in the modern world: physical inactivity, sedentariness. Activity should be promoted at the individual level, but also at community level. One way of doing this is by creating an environment that promotes outdoor activity and exercise. This benefits health in several ways: physical fitness is enhanced, mental wellbeing improves and social connectedness increases. One neighborhood in Groningen, the Netherlands, is a neighborhood housing about 12,000 citizens with on average a low-SES background, showing a less healthy and active lifestyle. The aim of this project was to engage citizens in the overall process of capturing, plan making and prototyping of concepts for an exercise-friendly physical and social environment (Figure 2). From January 2020 onwards, a project was run following the “Our Voice” method combining citizen science and design thinking (Figure 3). Participatory citizen science was applied in which a community of stakeholders (public and private parties) and citizens was built. In research walks with citizens (n=22) the Discovery Tool © was used to capture neighborhood features.

Our Voice In Action

1. Discover: Assets and Challenges to Physical Activity

Citizens used the Stanford Discovery Tool™ which allowed for systematic observations of the physical environment. Additionally, during the walks citizens were informally interviewed on neighborhood barriers and facilitators.

2. Discuss: Themes and Solutions Identified by Citizen Scientists

Collected data were used in neighborhood meetings (Figure 3 and 4) to discuss improvement of exercise-friendliness of the environment. Common themes were defined and ideas were generated.

Main Themes Identified: 

  1. Nature (green/grass, ponds/fishing) 
  2. Grey (asphalt, boardwalks, tunnels) 
  3. Sports & Play (playgrounds, outdoor fitness, tennis fields, soccer fields) 
  4. Exercise and recreational routes (walking, cycling, seating areas) 
  5. Maintenance (covers themes 1-4)

Solutions Identified:

Dozens of solutions were posited by the citizen scientists. Some key ideas are as follows:

3. Activate: Citizen Scientists Prototype with Stakeholders

After ideation, walking routes came out as the most prominent idea to elaborate. To make the idea tangible, community residents developed a first prototype of a walking route and discussed this in three new community meetings. The purpose and contents of the route were shared and residents were invited to make a test walk and provide feedback on the route. At the same time, a graphic design company was approached to take care of route design. Feedback made sure the route could be finetuned according to wishes of residents, with an eye for safety, accessibility and attractiveness. 

During the whole process, city policy makers were involved in the process and provided input on possibilities for realization.  Shortly after the second community meeting, the ideas and prototypes were presented to local policy makers. Following, several meetings with policy makers and community members took place to finetune the process of implementing ideas and prototypes. 

One of the walking routes passes all big art objects in the neighborhood, the other route runs along the bigger playgrounds and sports areas (Figure 6). In 2021, the whole development of both routes was facilitated by a small work group, including citizens, city officials, designers and researchers. Prerequisites (safety, accessibility, resting places) were defined and prototypes of materials were developed. During the whole citizen science process around 150 citizens and other stakeholders have been involved.

4. Change: Citizen Scientists Implement Solutions

Citizen scientists prototyped route flyers, route signs and ideas for additional art objects. Realization of the art route started at the end of 2021 and was finished by the end of 2023 (Figure 7). Furthermore, the art route was incorporated on a website for walking routes.

People and Collaborators

Project Lead(s): 


Collaborating Organization(s) / Institutional Partner(s): School of Sports Studies, Hanze University of Applied Sciences

Funding Source(s):

ZonMw, The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development

Associated Publications

  • Publication in progress: Leveraging citizen science to improve exercise-friendliness in a low SES neighborhood
  • Poster (Figure 1)

Our Voice Impact

"This experience has changed my life.  I see inadequacies everywhere I go as it relates to pedestrian access and safety.  I even stop [at] construction sites to remind them to be considerate of the handicapped in our community.  Thank you all so much for this awareness and empowerment to require change."

~ Pam Jiner, GirlTrek Advocacy Leader, Denver CO