Body Mass Index, Safety Hazards, and Neighborhood Attractiveness

Researchers evaluated how much certain characteristics of an attractive and safe neighborhood affect the weight of people living there. They looked at features such as attractiveness, presence of landmarked buildings, sidewalk cafes, street trees, and clean sidewalks, as well as safety hazards, including homicides and pedestrian-auto fatality rates. They hypothesized that the attractiveness features would predict lower body mass index (BMI) while the safety hazards would predict higher BMI.

Some 13,102 adult survey participants were recruited from New York City’s five boroughs to represent the city’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. They were measured for height and weight, and their home addresses coded. Other data were obtained from various city sources and the U.S. Census Bureau.

As expected, sidewalk cafes, landmark buildings, and street trees were associated with lower BMIs in residents. Contrary to expectations, street cleanliness and safety-hazard indicators were not linked to BMI. Perhaps, the authors suggest, an active, lean population may contribute to more neighborhood litter and more pedestrian-auto fatalities.

They conclude that while investments in the built environment potentially can reduce obesity, neighborhood characteristics may not be relevant to the same degree across various population subgroups and settings.