Four Surprises in Crafting Healthy Neighborhoods

Healthy neighborhoods represent an important goal for many obesity prevention efforts. Access to physical activity and healthy food options are important for good health. But efforts to re-engineer neighborhoods to promote health have a mixed track record. Recent research makes it increasingly clear that conventional wisdom about building healthy neighborhoods may be too simplistic to work.

A diverse group of authors, including Janne Boone-Heinonen and Penny Gordon-Larsen, have just published findings about neighborhood environments from the CARDIA study that challenges some conventional wisdom. They found that increased access to supermarkets and commercial fitness facilities help BMI outcomes for men, but not women. And four factors, contrary to expectations, were found to provide no benefit in predicted BMI outcomes. These included:

  1. Fewer fast food outlets
  2. Fewer convenience stores
  3. More public facilities for physical activity
  4. More intensive (less sprawling) development

Along with other research, these findings make it clear that cookie-cutter approaches to building healthy neighborhoods are unlikely to work well. In the words of the authors:

Neighborhood improvements should be tailored to specific neighborhood contexts. Identification of the most beneficial combinations of neighborhood improvements in varying contexts requires greater understanding of complex, interactive impacts across many aspects of the food retail, physical activity, and socioeconomic environments.

Click here to read the study in PLOS ONE, here for learnings from food policy research in New York City, and here for a recent study of the relationship between BMI and neighborhood food outlets,

Little Pink Houses, photograph © Thomas Hawk / flickr

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