UNC, Maryland researchers study impact of neighborhood development on physical activity, obesity

August 25, 2004
CHAPEL HILL — Researchers from city planning and public health are conducting a three-year study focused on possible links between urban and suburban sprawl and the rise in U.S. obesity rates.The research team, including faculty members from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland, will study whether or not certain types of urban development may discourage physical activity. Studies have identified a lack of physical activity as a major factor in unhealthy weight gain.

With a $473,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, issued through its Active Living Research national program, researchers will begin studying the physical activity levels of residents in five Montgomery County, Md., neighborhoods. The team will determine how certain neighborhood characteristics influence residents’ decisions on physical activity.

“The way contemporary urban and suburban areas have developed plays a role in discouraging physical activity and may be contributing to the obesity epidemic,” said Dr. Daniel Rodriguez, a professor in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences’ department of city and regional planning. “The question is which specific characteristics, such as distance to commercial areas and access to pedestrian and bicycle trails, are responsible for this.”

Rodriguez, the study’s principal investigator, also is a faculty fellow at UNC’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies.

The study will take place in different neighborhoods in Bethesda, Forest Glen, Four Corners, Layhill and Olney. Montgomery County was chosen because it offered a variety of built environments, ranging from low-density areas to highly urbanized, transit-oriented areas, Rodriguez said.

Volunteer participants will be given advanced sensors to measure physical activity and diaries to record their daily habits. Measurements gathered from satellite photos, geographic information systems (GIS) and field visits will provide detailed information on the environment where participants live and work.

“The study will provide a wealth of environmental information rarely available to researchers,” Rodriguez said. “We’re hoping that the knowledge gained will provide a basis for changing the way our neighborhoods are planned.”

Kelly Evenson, research assistant

Kelly Evenson, research assistant

The UNC research team also includes Dr. Asad Khattak, associate professor in the department of city and regional planning; Dr. David Salvesen, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies’ Smart Growth and the New Economy Program; and Dr. Kelly Evenson, research assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

Additional team members include Dr. Kelly Clifton, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and assistant professor in urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland; and Toole Design Group of Laurel, Md.




Note: Contact Rodriguez at (919) 962-4763 or danrod@unc.edu, Evenson at (919) 966-1967 and Clifton at (301) 405-1945.

College of Arts and Sciences contact: Dee Reid, (919) 843-6339 or deereid@unc.edu

For further information please contact Emily Smith either by phone at 919.966.8498 or by e-mail at emily_smith@unc.edu.