Study finds neighborhood characteristics impact mental and physical health for better or worse


Sidewalks, single-lane roads and traffic signs could all be part of a community’s path to mental and physical health, for better or worse, according to a new study led by the University of Maryland.

The research analyzed Google Street View images of various regions of the United States to correlate elements of the built environment with health behaviors and a range of diseases. The results were published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“Our results suggest that neighborhood walking and urban development are linked to less chronic disease, better mental health and reduced smoking, while single-lane roads, which are an indicator of less urban development, are associated with higher levels of chronic disease,” said Quynh Nguyen. , lecturer in epidemiology and biostatistics at the UMD School of Public Health.

Funded by a $1.34 million grant from the National Library of Medicine, the project began with 164 million street-level images of features such as sidewalks, crosswalks, streetlights, green spaces and single-lane roads. The researchers also used images of chain-link fences, which typically surround abandoned land and can signify a deterioration of cities.

Nguyen’s interdisciplinary research team, including graduate students from the School of Public Health and the Department of Computer Science, manually annotated 18,700 images to create a computer vision model that recognized features of the built environment used in the project. They then created an interactive geoportal where people can see the prevalence of these built environment features on a map of the United States.

“National surveys are expensive and can cost upwards of $30 million,” Nguyen said. “We wanted to include rural, suburban, and urban areas…Google Street View allows us to peek into regions of the United States to see what neighborhoods look like.”

To explore links to demographics, socioeconomics, and health, the researchers used data from the U.S. Census, American Community Survey, and Project PLACES 2021, a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC ), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the CDC. Foundation.

The study found that single-lane roads and chain-link fences are associated with more days of poor mental health, depression, smoking and other health risks. Conversely, crosswalks and sidewalks, which improve walkability in neighborhoods, are associated with lower risks of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and depression.

“What we’re trying to do is spread data across the United States, and if we find areas that are really struggling, maybe it’s because they don’t have enough recreational resources,” Nguyen said. “For example, if there are no sidewalks to walk on, it really limits their mobility and, as this study shows, their health.”

Although the correlation does not imply causation, the study results are valuable to communities of all shapes and sizes, Nguyen said. For example, community planners can use the results to understand the impact of the built environment on residents’ health, especially when weighing infrastructure decisions, she said.

Housing and building design play an important role in public health, but so far the focus has been on sustainable building design, said Ming Hu, associate professor of architecture and co-author of the item.

“A design that benefits the climate and human health is not mutually exclusive; Moving from a sustainable building to a healthy building could present a transformative tool to improve public health,” Hu said.

The findings can also guide health care leaders as they focus more on the social determinants of health – the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work and play that influence health, functioning and outcomes and risks related to quality of life.

“Today we catalog built environments and how they affect health,” she said. “But as the built environment changes, how does the racial and ethnic makeup of the people who live there change? We will continue to examine disparities and access to improved neighborhoods. »

Other co-authors include researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics (Xiaohe Yue, Heran Mane, Abby Sun), the University of Utah, and the Institute of Scientific Computing (Tolga Tasdizen, Mitra Alirezaei , Ross T. Whitaker) and South Dakota State University (Dapeng Li). Anne Antonietti, the rising high school student from Walt Whitman High School, was also a co-author.


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