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Designing neighborhoods to promote family activities

The placement of playgrounds is anything but child's play. Many parents in the United States spend more time in traffic than playing with their children. Family interaction is essential to child development, so the lack of family-oriented activities could pose a serious threat to child health and school performance.

Assistant Professor Yingling Fan, who teaches urban and regional planning, wants to see if and how neighborhood design can promote family activities and, ultimately, enhance children's well-being. She is one of four researchers chosen by the University's Children, Youth, and Family Consortium (CYFC) through a competitive process for its CYFC Scholars Program. The program supports research to generate new knowledge at the intersection of educational and health disparities of children.

"The literature documenting the relationship between family activities and child well-being already is well established," Fan says. "I am interested in establishing the causality chain linking neighborhood design to family togetherness and then to good outcomes for kids."

The first phase of the research will involve recruiting families with school-age children from throughout the Twin Cities. Analyzing such data as the characteristics of the neighborhoods in which they live, weekly activity logs, and personal attributes, Fan will identify potential determinants of family activity participation and child well-being, which, in turn will be used to design neighborhood-specific strategies to meet the needs of families with school-age children.

The final phase of the project will be before-and-after comparisons of targeted neighborhoods with "control" communities that have similar socio-demographic characteristics to determine whether the positive changes in the built environment improve child health and school performance by increasing participation in family activities.

'The 'active living through design' movement in urban planning has focused on individual activity," Fan continues, "but the 'with whom' question has been overlooked. With whom you enjoy recreation and physical activity is very important in terms of building social capital, something that has been declining in American society for the past 20 years or so."

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