The unbuilt environment: culture moderates the built environment for physical activity


Background: While research has demonstrated a link between the built environment and obesity, much variation remains unexplained. Physical features are necessary, but not sufficient, for physical activity: residents must choose to use these features in health-promoting ways. This article reveals a role for local culture in tempering the effect of the physical environment on physical activity behaviors. Methods: We developed Systematic Cultural Observation (SCO) to observe place-based, health-related culture in Lenoir County, NC (population ~60,000). Photographs (N = 6450) were taken systematically from 150 most-used road segments and geocoded. Coders assessed physical activity (PA) opportunities (e.g., public or private activity spaces, pedestrian-friendly features) and presence of people in each photograph. Results: 28.7% of photographs contained some PA feature. Most were private or pedestrian; 3.1% contained public PA space. Only 1.5% of photographs with any PA features (2% of those with public PA space, 0.7% of those with private) depicted people despite appropriate weather and daylight conditions. Conclusions: Even when PA opportunities existed in this rural county, they were rarely used. This may be the result of culture (“unbuilt environment”) that disfavors physical activity even in the presence of features that allow it. Policies promoting built environments designed for healthy lifestyles should consider local culture (shared styles, skills, habits, and beliefs) to maximize positive outcomes.

BMC public health