Urban design found to affect physical activity in Chinese cities

Original article published by Cities Today on 2 March 2015 Author Jonathan Andrews

A new study by New York University and East China Normal University researchers has found that the design of the built environment influences how much walking and cycling people do in Chinese cities where obesity and chronic diseases are at highly elevated levels and still rising.

“While not surprising,” write the authors in their study published in the journal Preventive Medicine, “this finding is important, as it demonstrates that the association between the design of the built environment and walking, which has been found to be linked in research in Western countries, also holds true in China.”

The report, Walking, obesity, and urban design in Chinese neighborhoods, finds that part of the emerging evidence “will be of critical importance to persuade local government officials and developers of the value of pursuing more walkable urban development patterns.”

Photo by Richard Schneider

Reflecting on China’s high rates of obesity and chronic diseases, the researchers set out to explore the impact of the built environment on physical activity in six densely populated neighbourhoods in Shanghai and Hangzhou. Each was inventoried for ease of walking and cycling, inclusive of such features as footpaths, street trees, benches, street widths, and curb cuts.

The communities were also audited for barriers to pedestrians and cyclists, such as vendors and parked cars obstructing the pavement, visible air pollution, bicycle lane hindrances, and overhead pedestrian bridges, which require greater exertion cross the street.

Four hundred and fifty-five Shanghai residents and 615 Hangzhou residents were surveyed for the study in central public spaces in order to assess rates of walking and cycling for travel and recreation, and for health outcomes, including Body Mass Index (BMI), demographic information, and environmental perceptions.

The higher the neighbourhood ranked overall in the ‘State of Place Index’ the greater were the levels of walking and cycling for commuting and recreation.

According to the study, income levels played a role in how much a respondent walked or cycled, but not in a predictable way as both higher and lower income respondents were more likely to have lower BMI, compared to middle income respondents, who were more likely to live in suburban neighbourhoods that have car-oriented transport and a lack of pedestrian amenities.

While the researchers did not examine the food environment, their study recommends that food intake be explored by other researchers in the future to shed further light on the link between income, obesity and walking in Chinese cities.