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Poor Neighborhoods Can Harm Health

New SDSU research finds that low-income areas have many road blocks to physical activity.
According to Sallis' research, urban blight in low-income neighborhoods can contribute to poor health. Photo by UpstateNYer, Wikimedia.
According to Sallis' research, urban blight in low-income neighborhoods can contribute to poor health. Photo by UpstateNYer, Wikimedia.
A new study from San Diego State University finds that low-income neighborhoods have many road blocks to physical activity.

The study is published in the new issue of the journal, Health and Place, and helps explain how low-income neighborhoods can harm health.

A number of neighborhood attributes play a role discouraging people in low-income areas from participating in physical activity, said Jim Sallis, lead author on the study as well as the director of SDSU’s Active Living Research program.

“We examined a wide variety of neighborhood attributes that have been linked to physical activity, diet or obesity, and almost all of them were worse in low-income areas,” Sallis said.

“Many low-income communities lack access to parks, recreation areas and sources of healthy foods. Residents of poor neighborhoods are more concerned about traffic and crime, and those factors play a significant role in preventing participation in outdoor activity in their communities.”

A similar but unrelated study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that living in low-income neighborhoods was detrimental to health, particular related to obesity and diabetes. This new SDSU study digs deeper into how and why low-income neighborhoods can harm health.

Walkability of neighborhoods

SDSU researchers evaluated the environmental attributes of 32 neighborhoods in and around Seattle, Wash., and Baltimore, Md., on walkability and neighborhood income. 

If we can convince cities and counties to focus on building and revitalizing communities to make them more walkable, the health of our citizens should be greatly improved...

In general, high-walkable neighborhoods had much more multi-family housing, grid-like street networks and nearby shopping with entrances opening onto sidewalks instead of parking lots. Low-walkability neighborhoods followed suburban, more automobile-oriented designs, with single-family detached housing, poorly connected streets and little or no nearby retail. 

Equal numbers of high- and low-income neighborhoods were studied in the high- and low-walkable categories.

Thus, overall walkability was comparable across income categories. In earlier research published on the Neighborhood Quality of Life Study, it was found that individuals who live in high-walkable communities are more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who live in low-walkable communities. Like other studies, residents of low-income neighborhoods were more obese, regardless of walkability.

“This study showed that even though we found low- and high-income neighborhoods with similar walkability, there were many other environmental differences. In low-income areas, there were fewer sidewalks, street crossings were less safe and aesthetics were poorer, so it was less safe and pleasant to be active outdoors.

“When you combine this with fewer parks and healthy food stores, it is easy to understand why people in low-income neighborhoods find it difficult to have healthy lifestyles.”

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The built environment

Promoting change in built environments is a main goal for Sallis and his fellow researchers. 

“If we can convince cities and counties to focus on building and revitalizing communities to make them more walkable, the health of our citizens should be greatly improved, reducing illnesses and health care costs nationwide,” Sallis said.

Some of the disadvantages found in low-income neighborhoods could be remedied in the short term with specific policies, according to Sallis.

“Improvements in amenities like sidewalks, bicycle facilities, streetlights and street crossings could make walking and bicycling safer. Neighborhood esthetics could be enhanced by planting trees, picking up litter and painting over graffiti.

“Public investments in parks and incentives for private recreation facilities to locate in low-income neighborhoods may be needed to remove disparities in access to recreation facilities.”

Sallis said comprehensive longer-term approaches are likely needed for the other solutions: traffic calming to improve pedestrian/traffic safety, policing strategies to improve crime safety and economic development to renovate dilapidated buildings and attract grocery stores.


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