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Role of Built Environment in Obesity Prevention

August 14, 2019

Introduction: [20-second music intro] Farm & Family is a production of Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Amy Myers (Introduces segment title): Today, we’re talking about the role of the built environment in obesity prevention.  Hello, I’m Amy Myers, and welcome to Farm & Family. Today, we’re speaking with Peter Summerlin, Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Mississippi State University.

Amy Myers: When we use the term “built environment”, what exactly do we mean by that and how does it relate to us in our daily lives.

Peter Summerlin: When we use the term “built environment”, we generally mean the physical, man-made parts of our communities.  These are things like roads, buildings, parks, and industry.  Just as important as what makes up our built environment is how we organize and prioritize those things in our communities.  For landscape architects like myself, we fundamentally believe that design influences behavior.  Bad design of our built environment can make our lives more hectic and even make us less healthy. But, at its best, good design makes our lives easier, can make things more pleasant, and even make us healthier.

Amy Myers: So, what are some specific ways that we can better design our communities to help address obesity and make us healthier?

Peter Summerlin: Designing healthier communities doesn’t guarantee that we will be healthier, but it certainly encourages healthy activity by making it easier.  This starts with prioritizing active modes of transportation.  You know, if you feel like you might get hit by a car walking somewhere, you won’t do it.  But if that walk is buffered from heavy traffic, has shade, flowering plants, seating and lighting, we are exceedingly more likely to substitute some driving with walking or biking.  Similarly, a dynamic playground or park can attract more kids outside and if we surround ourselves with more of these opportunities to be active, we’ll find our communities will be more active and healthier as a result.

Amy Myers: Are there any projects you’ve worked on where you’ve seen a public design project positively affect people’s behavior?

Peter Summerlin:  I have.  In fact, one of my favorite examples was with my first job out of school.  I worked in the Community Development department in Madison, Mississippi and lived less than a mile or so from two elementary schools there in town.  Some of our neighbors would actually walk with their kids to those schools in the morning.  I thought about being around that age and how I was able to walk and bike to school and that being a special part of my childhood.  I figured, we can expand this to multiple neighborhoods around these schools.  So, that led to some community meetings, and then a grant, and then construction document and eventually a new series of trails to the schools.  You know, the goal was not the concrete and bike racks that we were able to build.  They were just the stage.  The ultimate goal that was realized for the community was more kids biking to school together, more parents walking with their kids, and the annual walk to school day that they still have today.

Amy Myers: Are these ideas intended for larger cities or is this something that can be applied to small communities as well.

Peter Summerlin:  You’ll find these concepts in communities of all sizes.  Greenways, which are dedicated trails for walking and biking with very little interaction with cars, are often considered more of an urban application.  And they are immensely successful there, no doubt.  Memphis in particular is doing a tremendous job with their greenways.  But there are smaller communities in Mississippi that have also found ways to take advantage of these types of trails.  My favorite example is the Tanglefoot trail, which is not too far from us here in Starkville.  The Tanglefoot is a 43-mile hike and bike trail that’s a former railroad line.  It starts (or ends, however you want to look at it) in Houston, MS and moves up to New Albany, MS.  Along the way, it travels through some small communities like New Houlka which has less than 1,000 people.  What we’ve found through our research is that amenities like the Tanglefoot Trail are actually more meaningful per person than what you find in metropolitan areas like Memphis.  But it’s more than just trails and transportation, investing in a great park and dynamic downtown are also really important ways to encourage people to make physical activity a bigger part of their lives.

Amy Myers: Where can we go for more information on this subject?

Guest Speaker: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a tremendous hub for information on this topic.  Their website is and I use their search feature a lot when I’m learning about a new topic or wanting to find tools and resources.  For our topic today, you could search phrases like “walkability”, “active living”, or “active transportation”.

Department: Landscape Architecture

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