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Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
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Important Course Pages
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The built environment can be characterized as the neighborhoods, roads, buildings, food sources and recreational activities in which people live, work, are educated, eat, and play (Sallis & Glanz, 2006). As human being we interact with the built environment daily. The built environment affects important lifestyles decisions that we make and provides the setting for all human activity. Because of this, the features within the built environment can promote or discourage healthy behaviour in individual and population health (Sallis & Glanz, 2006). Children are greatly affected by their built environment because they are less autonomous than adults and are therefore dependent on their environment in which they are captive.

The Built Environment from an Ecological Perspective

The built environment is usually viewed within an ecological model in understanding physical activity behaviour. An ecological approach looks at the interaction between individual factors, social factors, and environmental factors which all amount to an individual’s level of health. Although the relationship between an active and healthy lifestyle and the built environment is complex, public health researchers have looked increasingly into this as a potential solution to curb obesity and inactivity (Spence & Lee, 2003).

Significance and Trends of the Built Environment throughout History

“We ought to plan the ideal of our city with four considerations. The first, as being the most indispensable, is health.” Aristotle, Politics (ca. 350 BC). Early concepts of the built environment have existed since antiquity with cities being intentionally planned as early as 500 BC with special considerations in how the built environment affects the lives of individuals how occupy that city.

Social Engineering

In the 18th century, social theorist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously conceived of a concept in design that would intentionally affect the behaviour of individuals. The concept of ‘panopticon’, or buildings designed so that individuals are perceived to being watched at all times, was intended to be used a form of social control. This design has been used in prisons, schools, factories, and other institutions (Bentham & Bozovic, 2010). Although this type of social engineering may seem dubious, it is clear that the design of the built environment has been engineered to have effects that can help promote certain behaviours.

Public Health

The relationship between public health and the built environment has been closely related. The story of Dr. John Snow and the Broad Street pump famously identified this relationship. During a cholera outbreak in 1854 in London, Dr. John Snow investigated the cause by examining the outbreak’s location points within London. He noted that the cholera outbreaks were situated by different water pumps. Snow theorized that the pumps were spreading the cholera and proved his theory by removing the handle of the Broad Street pump and thereby stopping the outbreak in that area. This marked the beginnings of epidemiology as well as the relationship between the built environment and public health (Kukuswadia, 2013).

Post WWII: Rise of the Suburbs

Prior to the middle of the 20th century, most cities were designed to support pedestrian travel for activities such as shopping and going to school. These ‘traditional’ neighborhoods are characterized by their mixed land use, connected streets, moderate to high density, and have been described as being designed to be ‘walkable’ (Sallis & Glanz, 2006). After WWII, suburbs began to grow and cities were increasingly designed to support vehicular traffic. This was further developed by policy changes that saw land use separated by zoning codes so homes and stores may not be in walking distance. This creates larger, more sprawled neighborhoods. They have increased traffic and increased reliance on automobile transportation, and are often described as ‘unwalkable’ (Sallis & Glanz, 2006).

Current Trends of 'Smart' Cities

Recently the focus has been directed back at designing ‘smart’ cities. In 1991 the USA legislated the Intermodal Transportation Efficiency act to put more emphasis on designing ‘smart’ communities that focus on smart growth, pedestrians, cycling, and public transit however automobile centric planning is still firmly embedded at state and federal levels (Sallis & Glanz, 2006). Much research has been conducted on the affects city design has on the health of the individual especially in regards to the walkability. Researchers have also compared physical activities of rural vs urban vs suburban children, although it is difficult to determine the underlying differences as the relationship between healthy behaviour and the built environment is complex (Sandercock, Angus & Barton, 2010).

Design Factors Influencing Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Factors and characteristics within a neighborhood and its built environment that affect lifestyle decisions include walkability, use of land, accessibility to recreational opportunities (facilities as well as green spaces), perceptions of safety, and access to food; all of which have been shown to either hinder or encourage healthy lifestyle choices (Frank et al., 2005).

Access to Recreational and Physical Activity Opportunities

Active recreation is an activity that individuals pursue on their leisure time for a personal sense of enjoyment that also benefits their physical, social, and emotional well-being. It has been shown that access to facilities and opportunities for physical activity (PA) are consistent predictors of levels of physical activity in children and adolescents (Sallis & Glanz, 2006). Recreational facilities and opportunities can be either formal such as exercise facilities or informal such as parks and other open spaces. Research has also shown that accessibility is extremely important to parents when choosing which playgrounds to bring their children to (Tucker et al, 2007). Accessibility and proximity has been noted as a significant barrier to pre-school parent’s children’s PA levels (Tucker, van Zandvoort, Burke & Irwin, 2011). The specific characteristics of a neighborhood’s layout establishes the accessibility to recreational and PA opportunities. For example, mixed land use with available open public spaces for play and accessible appropriate recreational facilities may foster increased physical activity and healthy lifestyles.

Community Design, Walkability, and Active Transportation

Loosely defined, walkability is how conducive an area is to walking. Factors that influence walkability are availability of sidewalks, footpaths and other pedestrian paths, traffic and road conditions, street connectivity, access to schools and parks, accessibility to facilities to people with different abilities, connections to mass transit, perceived safety, ease and safety of crossings, and aesthetic factors such as visual interest (Lo, 2009). This myriad of factors help make the communities built environment affect the active transportation decisions of members of that community. There have been many studies that have examined physical activity between individuals from areas with high and low walkability. These studies consistently show more individuals choosing to walk or cycle as primary forms of transportation in more walkable cities. Most research is focused on adults, however some research suggests that young people are more likely to walk to nearby locations in traditional neighborhoods. Certain characteristics of a neighborhood have significant effects on children’s walking behaviours such as availability of sidewalks and safe road crossings (Sallis & Glanz, 2006). Research has shown that safety and distance plays a significant factor in children’s decision to participate in active transportation. Distances to schools has increased over the past 4 decades (Wong et al, 2011). There are numerous health benefits to active transportation for children including increased daily physical activity, increased cardiovascular capabilities, increased bone density and increased social health (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, 2014).


Safety has been seen as a major factor determining children and parents’ choices of location and participation in physical activity. Perceived safety has been shown to predict reduced physical activity among urban children and adolescents and has also been seen as a barrier to physical activity and recreation to some parents (Veitch, Bagley, Ball & Salmon, 2006). Safety concerns include crime rates, stranger danger, as well as heavy traffic. Some safety concerns are due to inadequate infrastructure like a lack of barriers between heavy traffic and play areas or bike paths, inadequate lighting and low visibility, or unsafe playground equipment (Veitch, Bagley, Ball & Salmon, 2006) The perception of safety seems to be more important than actual measurements of safety (crime rates) when predicting physical activity in urban children. Even though the perception of safety is a psychological factor, there are external and environmental factors that can help influence these perceptions. These include increased visibility and lighting, barriers between bike lanes and traffic. More aesthetically pleasing things are seen as safer. Because parents are concerned about their child’s safety, the level of independence allowed to children and adolescents in less safe neighborhoods may hinder their ability to capitalize on health and recreational opportunities (Veitch, Bagley, Ball & Salmon, 2006).

Nutritional Environment

The nutritional environment of a neighborhood can be thought of as the neighborhood’s accessibility to fresh and healthy food options. This includes healthy food options priced appropriately to be accessible for those of lower income levels. Studies have shown the connection between consumer nutrition environments and eating behaviours. Access to fresh healthy food has been viewed as a key determinant to health. Geographical areas where individuals lack access to healthy foods has been termed ‘food deserts’. A positive relationship was found between childhood obesity rates and the schoolboards that are situated in food deserts, even controlling for socio-economic status (Schafft, Jensen & Hinrichs, 2009). Several studies have also examined schools as a source of food and found that availability to fruits and vegetables in school lunches is positively linked with children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables (Sallis & Glanz, 2006).

Inclusion through the Built Environment


The built environment can be specifically created for the inclusion of children through water fountains and other facilities that accommodate the height and size of children, or specific play areas in malls and buildings that provide a recreational opportunity for children where there may not be otherwise (Kraftl, Horton & Tucker, 2007).

Individuals with Disabilities

The built environment can provide a more inclusive environment for individuals with disabilities. Examples of this are cut-out curbs that provide wheel chair access to the sidewalks, or audible traffic signals to help those who are visually impaired (Prideaux & Roulstone, 2009). These types of characteristics of the built environment help to create a more inclusive world for everyone. An example specific to children are the three full accessible playgrounds that were built for the 2010 Winter Olympics in the host city Vancouver. These playground includes features to ensure universal access for children of all ages and abilities. This includes a wheelchair accessible surface for children and caregivers enabling access to the playground (, 2015).

Practical Applications and Recommendations

With childhood obesity and a more sedentary lifestyle on the rise it is important for policy makers as well as parents to use the built environment to help positively influence lifestyle choices of children and adolescents.

Policy Makers

  • Design communities that foster healthy choices. This includes design features such as walkability, accessibility, perceived safety, access to recreational facilities and open spaces and parks.
  • Enforce Zoning policy that sees more mixed use land and higher density that is conducive to a more walkable community and shorter distances to important resources and institutions like schools and parks.
  • Increase opportunities for physical activity and recreation in the community and in schools.
  • Help ensure community access to fresh and healthy food through lunch programs at schools as well as support and facilitate community gardening initiatives.
  • To support policy that promotes active transportation. This may include enforcing traffic calming measures to help create low traffic zones and promote active transportation.


  • Choosing a neighborhood and living space that is conducive to healthy lifestyle decisions, including access to fresh and healthy foods, proximity and access to recreational opportunities and close proximity to appropriate schools.


Bentham, J., & Božovič, M. (2010). The Panopticon Writings. London: Verso.

Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (2015). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines. Retrieved from:,. (2015). Vancouver Park Board - Kitsilano Beach Park. Retrieved 1 March 2015, from

Frank, L., Schmid, T., Sallis, J., Chapman, J., & Saelens, B. (2005). Linking objectively measured physical activity with objectively measured urban form. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28(2), 117-125. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2004.11.001

Kraftl, P., Horton, J., & Tucker, F. (2007). Children, Young People and Built Environments. Built Environment, 33(4), 399-404. doi:10.2148/benv.33.4.399 Kukuswadia, A. (2013). John Snow - The First Epidemiologist. Public Health Perspectives. Retrieved from ow-the-first-epidemiologist/

Lo, R. (2009). Walkability: what is it?. Journal Of Urbanism: International Research On Placemaking And Urban Sustainability, 2(2), 145-166. doi:10.1080/17549170903092867

Prideaux, S., & Roulstone, A. (2009). Good practice for providing disabled people with reasonable access to the built environment. Int J Of Law In The Built Env, 1(1), 59-81. doi:10.1108/17561450910950250

Sallis, J., & Glanz, K. (2006). The Role of Built Environments in Physical Activity, Eating, and Obesity in Childhood. The Future Of Children, 16(1), 89-108. doi:10.1353/foc.2006.0009

Sandercock, G., Angus, C., & Barton, J. (2010). Physical activity levels of children living in different built environments. Preventive Medicine, 50(4), 193-198. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2010.01.005

Spence, J., & Lee, R. (2003). Toward a comprehensive model of physical activity. Psychology Of Sport And Exercise, 4(1), 7-24. doi:10.1016/s1469-0292(02)00014-6

Tucker, P., Gilliland, J., Irwin, J.D. (2007). Splashpads, swings, and shade: parents’ preferences for neighborhood parks. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 98 (3) (2007), pp. 198–202

Tucker, P., van Zandvoort, M., Burke, S., & Irwin, J. (2011). The influence of parents and the home environment on preschoolers' physical activity behaviours: A qualitative investigation of childcare providers' perspectives. BMC Public Health, 11(1), 168. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-168

Veitch, J., Bagley, S., Ball, K., & Salmon, J. (2006). Where do children usually play? A qualitative study of parents’ perceptions of influences on children's active free-play. Health & Place, 12(4), 383-393. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2005.02.009

Wong, B., Faulkner, G., Buliung, R., & Irving, H. (2011). Mode shifting in school travel mode: examining the prevalence and correlates of active school transport in Ontario, Canada. BioMed Central Public Health, 11(618). doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-11-618.