Health impacts of urban design analyzed

NYU researchers collaborated with East China Normal University to explore the effects of urban design on obesity in China.

Researchers from NYU and East China Normal University conducted a study that explores the relation of urban design on the level of physical activity in that area, giving rising concern that the architectural layout may be a possible cause for the rising obesity rates and chronic diseases in Chinese cities. The study, “Walking, obesity, and urban design in Chinese neighborhoods,” was led by Kristen Day, Mariela Alfonzo, Zhan Guo of NYU and Lin Lin of East China
Normal University.

The study explores the design of an environment and its influence on the health of the communities of six populous Chinese neighborhoods. These neighborhoods ranged from urban, inner-suburban and outer-suburban areas in Shanghai and Hangzhou. They were analyzed for walkability, street widths and number of trees and benches. Over one thousand residents were surveyed and evaluated for rates of walking, bicycling, Body Mass Index and demographic information. Each neighborhood was measured on the State of Place Index, which classifies and assesses the area’s urban design features including density, number of parks, amount of public space and pedestrian infrastructure, for a total of 11 analyzed dimensions. A higher ranking in this index indicates a greater level of observed physical activity in the form of walking and bicycling for commuting for
the neighborhood.

The research found that income level had an influence on the amount of bicycling and walking. Respondents with higher and lower incomes were more likely to have a lower BMI in comparison to respondents in the middle income bracket. It is possible that because these middle-income respondents are more prone to living in suburban areas, they had more access to auto-transportation and were less likely to walk, bicycle or utilize physical-activity oriented travel, compared to high and
low-income respondents.

According to Day, this finding shows that creating more walkable urban environments may have especially important impacts on the middle class.

“We need to do more research to understand why this is — it may be that low income residents already walk more because they don’t have access to cars, and high income residents may have less risk from obesity because of other factors, such as knowledge about healthy eating and physical activity,” Day said.

The researchers are also interested in observing how other future studies investigating food intake might reveal the connection between income, obesity and levels of physical activity in China. But this current study can be part of a greater advancement to encourage the Chinese government to improve and create more walk-friendly urban layouts. This change would help foster increasing levels of physical activity and lead to decreasing rates of obesity in Chinese cities.

“In our future research, we hope to identify the economic, environmental and health benefits associated with three ‘model’ walkable urban developments, compared to more traditional, car-oriented developments in China,” said Day. “We also plan to find out more about how these model urban developments were created and why they worked. We want to share these stories with government decision makers and developers, to help persuade them of the benefits of walkable development.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 2 print edition. Email Tiffanie Hwang at [email protected]

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