Walkable for Whom? Examining the Role of the Built Environment on the Neighbourhood-Based Physical Activity of Children

Article excerpt


Objectives: To date, only a few studies have attempted to study the processes by which community design and the built and social environments affect individual physical activity, especially in children. Qualitative enquiry is useful for exploring perceptions and decision-making, and to understand the processes involved in how people interact with their environments. This study used qualitative methods to gain insight into the pathways linking the neighbourhood environment with children's activity patterns.

Methods: Data were collected in semi-structured interviews with 24 child-parent dyads (children aged 10-14 years). Families lived in neighbourhoods ranging from lowest to highest median income and representing the three main design types found in Saskatoon - urban, semi-suburban and suburban.

Results: Parents and children underscored the importance of safe environments for children's physical activity: streets or paths they can cycle on without feeling threatened, parks and green spaces free of criminal activity, and neighbourhoods where people know each other and children have friends to play with. Although grid-pattern urban neighbourhoods with a high density of destinations may in principle promote active transportation, the higher levels of crime and traffic danger that tend to exist in these areas may hinder physical activity in children.

Conclusion: Understanding what facilitates activity in children is a complex endeavour. It requires understanding the barriers to physical activity present at the neighbourhood level as well as social and perceptual factors that act in interdependent ways to either promote or hinder children's physical activity.

Key words: Neighbourhood built environment; children; qualitative method; safety; physical activity

La traduction du résumé se trouve à la fin de l'article. Can J Public Health 2012;103(Suppl. 3):S29-S34.

Walkability - the extent to which an area is supportive of walking - is a concept that emerged from the transportation literature and has been widely adopted in health research examining the impact of the built environment on physical activity and health outcomes.1 Factors that make neighbourhoods more walkable include pedestrian amenities such as sidewalks, crosswalks, curb cuts and traffic lights; street connectivity; mixed-land use; and the presence of a variety of destinations within walking distance, features typically found in urban more than suburban neighbourhoods.2-4 From a public health perspective, creating more walkable neighbourhoods might be expected to lead to a healthier environment by encouraging reduced car usage and therefore lower car emissions and air pollution, and also by increasing opportunities for active transportation (physically active modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, rollerblading, skateboarding), which could increase overall levels of physical activity and decrease obesity.5-7

Although a significant amount of research has shown that adults living in urban neighbourhoods walk more and have a lower bodymass index (BMI) than their suburban counterparts, other studies have found that this association is not consistent in all urban neighbourhoods or with all demographic groups.4,8,9 Very little research has examined the impact of neighbourhood design on activity levels in children and youth, and the few studies that have looked specifically at youth activity have also produced mixed findings. 10-13 A study of Belgian adolescents found that they were more likely to walk and bike in less walkable neighbourhoods than more walkable neighbourhoods.14 Other studies have found that while boys are more active in neighbourhoods that are close to commercial areas and have connected streets, girls are more active in neighbourhoods with unconnected, curvilinear, low-traffic streets.15,16

No consistent association has been established between children's BMI and neighbourhood design, but some research suggests that certain neighbourhood characteristics may be influential. …