A ‘health index’ can help us plan better

The Healthy Location Index in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. Credit: Lukas Marek and Matthew Hobbs

As the city council and central government consider what the cities of the future will look like, a new tool has been developed to map how different features of where we live affect public health.

That Healthy Location Index (HLI) degrades healthy and unhealthy elements in cities across New Zealand. It provides important lessons on how to plan and change our cities to increase physical activity levels and tackle important issues such as obesity and mental health.

The overweight environment

New Zealand has one of the highest numbers of adults living with obesity in the world and the rates do not get better. Data from 2021 showed a significant increase in both obesity in children and adults from the previous year.

Obesity is a major public health problem, which is estimated to be responsible for approx 5% of all global deaths yearly. The global economic impact of obesity is estimated at around USD 2 trillion or 2.8% of global GDP.

Health problems like this are often thought of in relation to personal responsibility. But this approach diverts focus away from health systems, governments and physical environments.

The global rise in obesity since 1980 has happened too fast genetic or biological factors to be its root cause. Instead, it can actually be just one normal response to environments that provide easy access to energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and a range of unhealthy options that require us to use very little energy.

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Think about it: Maintaining good health in our current environment requires a great deal of effort. Why? Because healthy choices are often harder than convenient choices, it is worth trying to avoid fast food places or conveniently located liquor storeslack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, or decide to cycle instead of driving.

This is known as one obese environment and it needs to change.

The Healthy Location Index

This change begins with an understanding of how things are at the moment, and this is where HLI comes in.

Data used in our index includes quantification of access to five “health-limiting” features: fast food outlets, takeaway locations, dairies and grocery stores, liquor stores, and venues.

We also quantify five “health-promoting” features: green areas, blue areas (accessible outdoor water environments), physical activity facilities, fruits and vegetables, and supermarkets.

The index provides a ranking for each neighborhood in New Zealand based on access to these positive and negative properties.

Out of New Zealand’s three major urban regions, Wellington shows highly accessible health-promoting and health-limiting environments, Auckland offers relatively balanced environments, and Christchurch shows a high proportion of people living in more health-limiting environments.

Environmental injustice

The larger image created by HLI supports previous evidence highlight a disproportionate number of health-limiting features, such as fast food places and liquor stores in socio-economically disadvantaged areas.

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Of particular concern in the most disadvantaged areas, the distance to health-limiting traits was half of what it was in the most disadvantaged areas, underlining the persistent oversupply of venues and liquor stores in some parts of the country.

This phenomenon is well known as a form of “environmental injustice”, which ultimately stems from a lack of equity in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.

The index also highlights how areas of New Zealand with quick and easy access to health-limiting features are disadvantaged in terms of both mental and physical health outcomes such as depression and type II diabetes.

While the index shows clear evidence that disadvantaged areas in New Zealand, on average, often have access to health-limiting features, this finding is not universal. It also varies from place to place.

Wellington and Christchurch both have a declining number of health-promoting environments with growing deprivation. However, there are remarkably more health-limiting places in Christchurch than in Wellington.

Knowledge offers a way to change

This is only our first repetition of the index and we intend to add more features in the future. But we hope the data in the index can encourage important conversations to help us better understand how our cities are shaped.

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We have to ask if we really need the extra fast food store or liquor store in the same neighborhood. We hope the index can help policy makers consider how to shape more health-friendly cities by regulating or adding the right features.

After all, protecting and promoting public health is a core responsibility of government, and it should not be left to individuals, families or communities to make such changes.

Obesity is linked to where you live – would regulating fast food outlets change this? Provided by The Conversation

This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read original article.

Quote: Cities make us fat and unhealthy: A ‘healthy location index’ can help us plan better (2022, April 1) Retrieved April 1, 2022 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2022-04-cities -fat- unhealthy-healthy-index.html

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