Built Environment Research Gets Traction

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November 29, 2012
By Alex Mignano
Built Environment Research Gets Traction

Recent efforts to track the impact of Active Living Reseasrch (ALR) grantees citations have revealed interesting results on built environment research. A citation analysis of 200 ALR grantee publications from 2003-2011 was done in July 2011 using Scopus, an online literature database. The search revealed Christine Hoehner’s 2005 article, Perceived and objective environmental measures and physical activity among urban adults, had the highest number of citations at 174. We asked Dr. Hoehner to share more about the study that earned the top spot on the list and how continued research on objective measures can influence physical activity.

Tell us about your research background.

 I'm an epidemiologist by training. Most of my research has been focused on environmental and policy determinants of physical activity and obesity. 

What lead you to conduct this study?

I worked on this study as part of my PhD dissertation. Our team at the Prevention Research Center in St. Louis was funded by the RWJF in 2001 (PI: Ross Brownson, PhD) to develop “Indicators of Activity-Friendly Communities.” Following a literature review and expert review process, we developed 10 indicators, many of which still hold up today. As part of this project we also wanted to develop and test methods for measuring these indicators. We started with the five indicators most relevant to the neighborhood environment, specifically the indicators related to the land use environment, recreational facilities, transport environment, aesthetics, and social environment. We adapted existing instruments and created survey and audit tools to assess these indicators. Back then, research instruments for assessing the neighborhood environment for physical activity were few and far between. We benefited a lot from the work done by Billie Giles-Corti and others in Australia, as well as work by pedestrian advocates, urban planners, and travel behavior researchers. 

How can objective measures be used by policymakers to advocate for active living?

Objective measures are useful because they can be mapped, and maps serve as an extremely powerful tool for presenting data and engaging policy-makers and advocates. In addition, objective measures are typically a product of a policy so making that connection with policy and practice is important. 

How has research on objective built environment measures evolved since your study?

Use of objective measures in research has exploded since our study. Studies are much more sophisticated these days. Improvements in GIS technology, access to data, funding (especially Active Living Research!), expertise, and inter-disciplinary collaboration have had a lot to with the surge in research on the built environment.

What would you say is the biggest challenge to measuring characteristics of the built environment/what are current measures lacking?

From my experience, the biggest challenges are finding and cleaning existing data on the built environment and then knowing how to create measures that are meaningful for influencing policy and for community work. Studying the built environment requires working with many datasets developed for non-research purposes that often vary in their quality between jurisdictions – even adjacent counties in the same metro area, as is the case in St. Louis. Often researchers must resort to less-than-stellar data or spend an enormous amount of time cleaning, verifying, and harmonizing data, especially if working in multiple sites. Data and measures that are extremely hard to come by at small geographic scales are crime, traffic, and sidewalk data. However, even if a researcher has detailed, quality data in their possession, another complexity is introduced when trying to package the data into meaningful variables (using conceptual frameworks of course) and statistical models that yield findings which are then understandable to the intended audience. 

What do you think the focus will be on future built environment/physical activity research?

We have come a long way, but I think future built environment research will be focused on five areas: (1) Improving measures and analytic approaches. This includes working with non-health and commercial sectors to improve the quality and usefulness of their data for public health researchers and others interested in effects of built environment on health. It also includes developing and applying sophisticated analytic tools to help in selecting the most robust built environment variables or combination of variables to prioritize for action. (2) Integrating GPS and GIS technology to expand knowledge about how characteristics of people’s activity spaces influence overall activity levels. This means extending built environment assessment beyond people’s home neighborhood (a.k.a. buffers) to include other settings where people spend time. (3) Conducting prospective studies and natural experiments to improve understanding about how changes in the built environment result in changes in health and health behaviors. (4) Generating more evidence about the co-benefits of “activity-friendly communities” beyond physical activity and obesity. This includes assessment of associations with economic development, the environment, mental health, and crime, as examples. (5) Developing approaches to engage stakeholders in the research process so that findings are relevant and believable to decision-makers. We call this “designing for dissemination.”

Dr. Hoehner is with the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. To learn more about her and fellow ALR grantees, visit our Project Profiles page.

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