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Inactivity and related health problems, such as obesity, are linked to the way in which our communities are designed. Research has shown that certain aspects of community design can encourage physical activity in our daily routines and promote healthy eating. Public health experts have begun working with city planners and environmental engineers to build community spaces that are safe and accessible and that promote activity and healthy eating by all individuals including the young, old, and disabled.
Built environment features that encourage activity include:
- Recreational resources, such as walking trails, bicycling trails, parks, gardens and open spaces.
- Land use characteristics, such as the density of residential and employment areas, location and density of fast food restaurants, the land use mix, and the number and proximity of stores, businesses, or workplaces.
- Neighborhood characteristics, such as sidewalks and streetlights.
Many communities have changed zoning and building codes to encourage mixed use development, and have passed legislation, such as recreational statutes and joint use statutes, to create safer places that encourage activity. Active living proponents, including public health and legal experts, develop land use, built environment, and transportation policies to enhance neighborhoods, improve residential conditions, and provide recreational opportunities for large numbers of people. Studies show that health disparities, such as the high rates of obesity among lower income and diverse populations, are linked to poor diet and lack of physical activity. As a result, public health advocates are also collaborating with community leaders to improve access to healthy affordable foods and to address neighborhood barriers to recreational activity, such as deteriorating playgrounds and unsafe parks, pedestrian walkways, and community facilities.
As with all public health initiatives, the overall goal in built environment planning and design is to protect and promote health. Evidence suggests that access to recreation facilities, safe open spaces, greater access to healthy foods (including gardens and farmer’s markets), and pedestrian-friendly (“walkable”) land, combined with health promotion activities and social support, can result in a healthier population.