Build it, they might run: Restructuring environments provides opportunity for physical activity but encouraging healthy living also needs social science’s insights into behaviour change

Take note: Urban design professionals, public health practitioners, government policy makers, health psychologists, psychologists, architects, urban planners

The problem: The design of our cities has the potentially to either positively or negatively impact health. We know that changes to built environment design and function can improve public health through increased opportunity for healthy behaviours; and that social scientists use behavioural science to encourage individuals to engage in healthy behaviours within place.  However currently, there has been little synthesis of published evidence regarding the potential to integrate these two approaches.

What we did and why: We conducted a scoping review, a rapid evidence synthesis method commonly used in public health, to summarise the impact built environment restructuring had on health outcomes and behaviors, we integrated these findings with two frameworks used to encourage healthy behavior. Twenty-three studies published in academic journals meeting specific inclusion criteria were identified from a search of 12 academic databases  – covering urban design, environmental psychology, and public health.

What our study adds:

  • Our review simultaneously synthesised evidence of the impact of built environment restructuring on health behaviors and integrated these findings with health behavior change theories.
  • Our study adds to our understanding of the link between built environments and health by summarising the impact of built environment restructuring projects on a range of health outcomes, most often increased physical activity.
  • We highlight the lack of explicit reporting of theories underpinning built environment projects that aim to support population health in the published literature.

Implications for city policy and practice: In terms of practice, built environment restructuring initiatives should involve social/health scientists from the outset.

We recommend:

  • Full account of the design process be published as a study protocol, including theories underpinning this process, to facilitate links to future evaluations;
  • Changes to built environment characteristics should be assessed along with a range of health outcomes, not only physical activity outcomes; and
  • Negative consequences of built environment changes should also be systematically explored.

Links to other work in this field see for example:
The Environmental Design Research Association (@edratweets)
School of Psychology at The University of Sunderland (@PsychUni_of_Sun)
International Association of People Environment Studies (@IapsAssociation)

Full research article: Restructuring the built environment to change adult health behaviours: a scoping review integrated with behaviour change frameworks

Authors: Stephanie Wilkie, Tim Townshend, Emine Mine Thompson, and Jonathan Ling.

Editor: Marcus Grant