New Orleans Bike

The Young Science of Built Environments and Obesity

Are we building places that harm our health? Yesterday, distinguished professor Jim Sallis told us, unequivocally, yes we are. At the National Academy of Sciences, he opened a survey of the young science of built environments and obesity. The Roundtable on Obesity Solutions sponsored this workshop.

Rarely Studied Until the 21st Century

Well into the 20th century, big cities and small towns alike were built for people. Mixed uses meant that neighborhood businesses served the needs of people who lived nearby. Workplaces and schools often blended into neighborhoods. People used the streets.

By the end of the century, most cities and towns were built for cars. Zoning laws separated homes from businesses. Strip malls and fast food evolved around cars. Pedestrians became second-class citizens at best. Driving to work, to shop, and to school became a big part of daily routines. Public transit faded and frayed.

Did these profound shifts in our environment play a role in the rise of obesity? That was a question rarely studied until the 21st century, said Sallis.

Clearly Important, But Much to Learn

Rodrigo Reis, Karen Glanz, and Daniel Rodríguez provided excellent overviews of what we know about this question. Especially in Glanz’s presentation on the food environment, two things were clear. First, we certainly have good reasons to suspect that we’ve built our world in a way that promotes obesity.

But second, the evidence remains thin to pinpoint the critical factors and single out solutions. When tested, assumptions often prove to be false. Considerable money and effort, for example, went toward planting supermarkets in food deserts. But those efforts, by themselves, didn’t move the needle toward better nutrition.

Likewise efforts to control fast food outlets haven’t produced impressive results yet.

Glanz made an important point. These are early days. Maybe the problem is that our methods are weak for studying these questions. Maybe the strategies need refinement. Implementation, intensity, and time are all important factors.

Or maybe some of our assumptions are wrong. The time is right for asking what we really know. Which beliefs about the built environment are indeed factual? Which are presumptions? And which of them are simply myths?

All the slides and a video recording of these proceedings will soon be available here. For perspective on studies of the built environment and health, click here and here. For a systematic review of the relationship between local food environments and obesity, click here.

New Orleans Bike, photograph © Ted Kyle / flickr

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September 13, 2017

2 Responses to “The Young Science of Built Environments and Obesity”

  1. September 13, 2017 at 10:52 am, Michelle Moskowitz Brown said:

    Since fresh fruits and vegetables have no margin, the supermarket model needs to make money in other areas – leading to superstores and candy, cigarettes, processed food, alcohol, etc – and that’s not even including clothing and cookware and other departments. Some of this is great – how convenient to get some health tests done or do your banking in the same place where you shop.

    It does not surprise me that supermarkets do not affect obesity, and it does not surprise me that chronic disease is hardly discriminating according to socio-economic status.

    The small grocer will not come back, and even larger supermarkets are leaving middle-class neighborhoods.

    Glad for an opportunity to move beyond this simple conversation about food deserts, into what will matter more….

    • September 13, 2017 at 1:12 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks for sharing your wise insight, Michelle.