Geographical Indicators of the Built Environment and Services Environment Influencing Physical Activity, Diet and Body Weight

Background and Objective
Over the past few years, excess weight has become one of the most troubling public health problems. Globally, organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have described the current situation as epidemic. Factors that can explain this trend are linked to complex interactions between individual characteristics and environmental aspects. The built environment and the services environment are elements that can influence individuals' behaviours, lifestyle habits and body weight. The main objective of this document is to analyze and present various indicators of the built environment and of the services environment. These indicators are constructed from a geographic information system and used in ecological studies that look at issues related to diet, physical activity and body weight.

We conducted a literature review of 56 studies, published between 2003 and 2009, using indicators developed from geospatial databases. The literature review enabled us to draw up a list of measures to attempt to characterize the built environment and the services environment. More specifically, this document contains six summaries of indicator categories for the built environment and the services environment1 likely to influence the health and behaviours of individuals:

  • Summary 1: Indicators of Land-use Diversity and Density
  • Summary 2: Indicators of Road Network Configurations
  • Summary 3: Indicators Linked to Nonmotorized Transportation Networks and Public Transit Infrastructures
  • Summary 4: Indicators of Urban Environment Design (at the both the street- and sitelevel)
  • Summary 5: Indicators Related to Recreational Infrastructure
  • Summary 6: Indicators Related to Food Outlets

Each summary contains a section presenting a justification of the potential impact of these environmental indicators on diet, physical activity or body weight. This section contains elements from the literature, data that is pertinent to Québec and Canada, as well as illustrative figures. For each environmental indicator, the summary also includes a section describing the studies retained and one that sums up the results of these studies. These two sections are followed by the list of indicators used, a section on the databases used to operationalize the various indicators, a comments and limits section, and finally a section on operationalizing indicators for Québec. This latter section includes a list of different databases that could be used to calculate the various indicators and a brief description of the databases. Examples of operationalization of the indicators are also presented in most summaries.

The literature review allowed us to observe that most studies found significant associations between the built environment and individuals' behaviours or characteristics. However, the methods and data sources used to develop indicators of the built environment are not consistent. The processes by which we develop indicators for the built environment and services environment should include putting in place tools to study the reliability and validity of these indicators. Nevertheless, several indicators used in various studies could be operationalized in Québec through geospatial databases. These indicators could subsequently be the subject of a portrait of the built environment and the services environment in Québec; they could also be used to study possible links between aspects of these environments and individuals' behaviours (physical activity or diet) or, indirectly, individuals' characteristics (body weight).

1The services environment includes elements of the built environment where contents can influence an individual's diet and physical activity. In other words, buildings that house these services are part of the built environment but the services offered in these building are not linked conceptually to the built environment. In our document, the services environment includes, on the one hand, elements of the food environment that refer only to geographical access to food outlets and, on the other hand, recreational infrastructures.

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