Cycle Track, New York City

Active Communities

Becoming more active is not just a matter of individual choice. A growing body of research suggests that people’s physical surroundings, or what scientists call “built environments,” have a large influence on people’s level of activity. (1)

People are more likely to be active if they live near parks and playgrounds; in neighborhoods that have sidewalks or bike paths; or close enough to work, school, or shopping that they can travel by bike or on foot. People are less likely to be active if they live in neighborhoods without recreation facilities, or in sprawling suburbs designed for driving.

Picking up and moving to a neighborhood with safer parks, tree-lined sidewalks, or bicycle-friendly streets is not an option for most folks. Instead, communities need to create built environments that make it easier for people to weave physical activity into their daily lives. (2, 3) Local and state leaders control budgets, zoning, and a variety of regulations that shape our physical surroundings, and there are many strategies communities can use to promote safe environments for activity: (2, 3)

  • Improving access to parks, walking and biking paths, community gardens, and other outdoor recreation facilities
  • Creating attractive sidewalks and so-called “cycle tracks,” barrier-protected and bicycle-exclusive facilities alongside sidewalks (similar to those used in the Netherlands)
  • Curbing traffic, so that people feel safer walking and cycling
  • Building schools within easy walking distance of where people live
  • Improving public transportation, to encourage more people to use it
  • Changing zoning rules to allow “mixed-use development”—if communities let homes, stores, schools, offices, and other buildings be built close to each other, people will be more likely to walk or bike from place to place, rather than hop in the car
  • Making neighborhoods safer, to encourage people to be active outdoors
  • Allowing community residents to use schools for recreation, after school hours

Individuals can help by becoming advocates for change, even pitching in: Volunteer to clean up a local park. Join a neighborhood crime watch. Start a petition to add crosswalks along a popular walking route to school, or to turn parking spaces into cycle tracks along busy streets.


1. Sallis JF, Glanz K. Physical activity and food environments: solutions to the obesity epidemic. Milbank Q. 2009; 87:123-54.

2. Khan LK, Sobush K, Keener D, et al. Recommended community strategies and measurements to prevent obesity in the United States. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2009; 58:1-26.

3. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Action Strategies Toolkit: A Guide for Local and State Leaders Working to Create Healthy Communities and Prevent Childhood Obesity. Accessed December 2, 2010.

Terms of Use

The aim of the Harvard T.H. Chan of Public Health Nutrition Source is to provide timely information on diet and nutrition for clinicians, allied health professionals, and the public. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The information does not mention brand names, nor does it endorse any particular products.