Urban areas with more vegetation, higher density of buildings and facilities, lower population density and no major roads are associated with better health behaviors in children. This is the conclusion of a multi-cohort study published in Environment International and led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a center supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation. Specifically, the study found that children who live surrounded by more natural spaces are more physically active, spend less time in sedentary activities, sleep more hours, and are more likely to walk or bike to school.
Most studies conducted to date have focused on the effect of the urban environment on adults and looked at only one type of exposure without relating it to other factors. This new study goes a step further by assessing the relationship between a wide range of urban environmental characteristics and health habits in 1,581 children aged 6 to 11 years from six European cohorts. The study reflects growing interest in researching how urban environments contribute to unhealthy behaviors in children and whether changing urban design can help promote healthier lifestyles.
To perform the analysis, the researchers assessed exposure to 32 features of the urban environment near children’s homes and schools, including traffic density on the nearest road and the presence of green or blue spaces (beaches, rivers, lakes, etc.). They also collected information on children’s health habits, including total time spent doing moderate to vigorous physical activity, physical activity outside of school hours, active transportation (walking, cycling, etc.) and sedentary activities, and sleep duration . Using these data, a multiple exposure model was developed.
Urban design affects health
The study found that active transportation increased and time spent in sedentary activities decreased in places where children were exposed to more green spaces. It also found that proximity to a major road was associated with shorter sleep duration (an average of 4.80 minutes less per night).
“Our findings have implications for urban planning policies,” commented Martine Vrieheide, Head of ISGlobal’s Childhood and Environment Program and last author of the study. “Public health interventions tend to focus on influencing individual behaviors rather than addressing the broader systemic determinants that drive these behaviors and widen health inequalities. Our evidence reinforces the need to prioritize urban design to improve health-promoting behaviors in children and prevent ill-health in adults.” One such strategy should be to increase the number of green spaces and the amount of street vegetation.
Vrijheid added: “We need further research that includes other urban indicators that may be relevant to the behavior of children and adolescents, such as pedestrian areas and sports facilities (e.g. ping-pong tables, volleyball courts, etc.) ), and which looks at more countries and less-studied areas to better assess how changes in the urban environment affect people’s lifestyles.”
A large percentage of the children included in the study (63.6%) do not meet the current recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) for moderate to vigorous physical activity (at least 60 minutes per day), and 58.6% spend more than two hours on day watching TV or playing computer or video games. Active transport is also low, with children spending an average of 6.9 minutes per day traveling from home to school.
The study, based on the Human Early-Life Exposome (HELIX) collaborative project, used data from six European birth cohorts:
- Born in Bradford (BiB, UK)
- Study of Early Pre- and Postnatal Determinants of Child Development and Health (EDEN, France)
- Children and the Environment (INMA, Spain)
- Kaunas Cohort (KANC, Lithuania)
- Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa, Norway)
- Crete Mother-Child Cohort, (RHEA, Greece)
Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal)