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The Multiplier Effect of Building Active Environments


The benefits of active-friendly environments reach far beyond encouraging physical activity, according to a new report from Active Living Research (ALR).

“The most important conclusion of this review is that creating communities, transportation systems, schools, and buildings that make physical activity attractive and convenient also produces a wide range of other benefits for communities, including economic and environmental benefits,” said Leader Jim Sallis, program director of ALR and lead author of the report.

The report, published in the International Journal of Behavior Nutrition and Physical Activity, is a literature review of 418 scientific and gray reports (studies by scientists, government agencies and policy groups) on various benefits of the built environment internationally.

The researchers looked specifically at six potential co-benefits – benefits other than an increase in physical activity. These co-benefits (physical health, mental health, environmental sustainability, economics, social benefits and safety/injury prevention) were evaluated for five types of settings: parks/open spaces/trails, urban design, transportation, schools and buildings/workplaces.

As examples of co-benefits, the authors note that having access to a park can have an effect on both physical and mental health, and ensuring zoning codes allow for mixed use developments can improve property values and reduce carbon emissions.

To organize the data, the authors created a matrix and classified each study as having strong, good or moderate positive, negative or null effect on the given setting based on the type of source material and the direction of association.

After analyzing all the studies, the authors found that for each setting, there was strong evidence for at least three of the six co-benefits.

  • Open spaces, parks and trails had good-to-strong evidence for all six co-benefits. And, each setting showed strong evidence for economic benefits.
  • Results from the study indicate that parks are strongly tied to all co-benefits except economics, where the evidence is moderate. All urban design features (residential density, mixed use, street-scale design, greenery and accessibility) are tied to economic benefits, and many of those features are tied to four or five co-benefits each.
  • Transportation systems showed the strongest tie to safety/injury prevention and economics.
  • When schools are located close to students’ homes, there is strong evidence of environmental sustainability, mental health and economic benefits.
  • In workplaces and buildings, outdoor site design features were shown to affect mental health, and building design had strong evidence for physical health as well as good evidence of environmental sustainability and economic benefits. Workplaces that offer physical activity programs or policies showed strong evidence of economic benefits.

Out of all the studies, there was only one net negative: in urban design settings, there was a likelihood of negative physical health and safety outcomes. The authors suggest this is due to higher population density.

“Rather than thinking that designing one feature of a transportation system or school is sufficient, decision-makers and designers should consider how features in all settings can be optimized for physical activity and multiple other benefits,” said Sallis.  “Creating activity-friendly communities can help solve multiple problems.”

To read the report click here. To read the more in-depth journal article, please click here

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