Highlights of Obesity and the Built Environment: Improving Public Health Through Community Design

Kristin Richardson


August 24, 2004

In This Article

What Is the Built Environment?

What event could bring together physicians, urban planners, dietitians, meteorologists, architects, social activists, policy planners, and politicians? The answer is a conference, "Obesity and the Built Environment," which was organized by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate how our built environment promotes a sedentary lifestyle and obesity.

At first, the uninitiated might stumble on the term "built environment," and conference participants at times wrestled with the term as well. During his opening remarks, Samuel H. Wilson, MD, Deputy Director, NIEHS, broadly defined the built environment as "environments that are human modified, including homes, schools, workplaces, highways, urban sprawl, and air pollution." As the conference progressed, this definition became even broader to include public policy, political action, and access, for example to fresh food, physical activity, and even leisure time. The presence or absence of a sidewalk in a suburban neighborhood is part of the built environment, but so is the fact that poor urban neighborhoods have too many fast food outlets and too few grocery stores that stock fresh fruits and vegetables. As discussions continued throughout the 3 days of the conference, participants generally agreed that although the term can sometimes seem vague, working with a broad definition encourages creative interdisciplinary thinking.

And interdisciplinary thinking was the engine of this conference. As Elias Zerhouni, MD, Director, NIH, remarked, "We can now change our environment at speeds that our genes cannot adapt to. Yes, we are going to do the research in neurobiology and metabolism, but it is critical to bring together policy planners and political leaders as well."


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.
Post as: