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

Kristin Richardson


August 24, 2004

In This Article

Bricks and Mortar

What part does the bricks and mortar component of the built environment play in encouraging physical activity? Susan Handy, PhD,[6] University of California, Davis, talked about what we know -- and what we don't know -- about community design and physical activity. She cautioned against assuming simple causality, and emphasized that community design may have different effects on different groups. For example, the cul-de-sac, that icon of disconnected suburban life, probably discourages adult physical activity because it discourages walking to destinations, but it may encourage physical activity in children because it's a safe place to play. She also urged participants to consider how community design might do more than just facilitate activity, and asked whether community design might actually change motivations and behaviors that affect physical activity.

Lawrence D. Frank, PhD,[7] University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, presented data from the first study to assess the effect that the urban form has on travel patterns, body mass index, and obesity status. Objective measures of land use mix, residential density, and street connectivity were developed to characterize a 1-kilometer "network distance" surrounding study participants' homes. Land use mix -- the degree to which the environment has a mix of commercial, residential, and other noncommercial uses -- was found to be the most important variable. As land use mix increased, obesity decreased. Each additional hour spent in a car per day was associated with a 6% increase in the likelihood of obesity, and each additional kilometer walked per day was associated with a 4.8% reduction in the likelihood of obesity. These results support the primary hypothesis of the study: increased levels of mixed land use and corresponding moderate physical activity (walking) are associated with reduced odds of obesity.


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