Defining the Built Environment
Natalie Colabianchi, Ph.D.
Obesity prevalence has doubled among adolescents over the past 20 years. In particular, the number of overweight minority adolescents has increased to over 30%. While several studies show an association between attributes of the built environment with eating behaviors, physical activity, and obesity in adults, adolescents are a little studied group. Little is known about the nature and pattern of adolescents' interaction with the non-school built environment. Few researchers have examined how residents define neighborhood boundaries and what factors contribute to those definitions. Most built environment research relies on prescribed geographic boundaries such as census tracts, though many researchers have noted that these boundaries are unlikely to match an individual's perception of his/her neighborhood. A definition of neighborhood boundaries that matches resident perceptions and accurate descriptions of neighborhood resource use patterns could assist with identifying the environmental factors that contribute to the development of obesity and ultimately lead to more targeted environmental interventions to decrease the prevalence of obesity. Many studies of the built environment and obesity have concentrated on urban areas, but few have examined adolescent residents of subsidized housing complexes, though these residents often experience poor health outcomes. Ecological models of health outcomes have not guided public housing policymakers' decision-making about estate construction and placement. There are important and practical policy implications if research can demonstrate that estate location and design affect obesity prevalence. The proposed study will employ a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the effects of the self-defined built environment on the consumption and physical activity behaviors of 140 adolescent residents of public housing estates by 1) examining the feasibility of obtaining adolescents' self-defined neighborhood boundaries using a mapping exercise; 2) testing the practicality of having adolescents complete travel diaries; 3) eliciting factors that are important to adolescents in determining facility utilization, travel route preference and neighborhood boundaries; and, 4) exploring attributes of public housing estates that may influence physical activity levels and eating behaviors of adolescent public housing residents.