Working Paper

Understanding variations in the built environment over time to inform longitudinal studies of young children's physical activity behaviour - The BEACHES Project

Published: 2024

Research has found that well-connected neighbourhoods with access to shops, services, and recreational areas are associated with increased physical activity in adults. However, relatively little is known about the role of the neighbourhood built environment on young children’s physical activity. This study used data from the Play Spaces and Environments for Children’s Physical Activity (PLAYCE) cohort study to identify changes over time to the built environment of 1,534 children from the Perth metropolitan area, Western Australia. Traffic exposure, street connectivity, access to public transport, residential density, and neighbourhood vegetation, were collected at three timepoints over eight years (2015-2023) when children were aged between two and ten years old. The findings will inform the analysis approach of subsequent research in the Built Environments and Child Health in Wales and Australia (BEACHES) Project, an international study examining the role of the built environment on child physical activity and obesity using multiple cohorts, one of which is the PLAYCE cohort study. A key aim of BEACHES is to determine if differences in physical activity and obesity between advantaged and disadvantaged neighbourhoods can be explained in part by differences in built environment attributes.

Modest changes to the neighbourhood built environment were identified over the course of the study both for young children who stayed in the same neighbourhood and those who moved to another neighbourhood. For children who did not move house between timepoints, there were small increases in residential density, intersection density, public transport stops, and vegetation. Children who moved house were exposed to less public transport stops and lower residential density in their new neighbourhoods. While these changes were statistically significant, they did not represent practically important differences. For example, an increase of one or two intersections in a child’s neighbourhood would not realistically have an impact on its walkability and the physical activity behaviours of its residents.

Importantly, we also examined differences in built environment attributes depending on the socio-economic status of the neighbourhood and found that the most socio-economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods had greater exposure to traffic, lower intersection density, more public transport stops, and higher residential density, while the least disadvantaged neighbourhoods had the most vegetation.

To better inform planning policy and practice, longitudinal research is needed to understand how the built environment influences physical activity across early childhood. However, researchers firstly need to understand how the built environment changes over time. The study found that while there were statistically significant differences in built environment attributes between timepoints and across socio-economic status, they did not represent practically significant differences. Future studies should consider stratifying by neighbourhood SES, rather than control for it, to better understand the complex relationship between the built environment and physical activity.


Ben Beck

Centre Member

Bryan Boruff
Gareth StrattonHayley Christian

Centre Member

Jasper Schipperijn
John DuncanKevin MurrayLucy GriffithsRichard Fry

Centre Member

Trina Robinson


Robinson, T., Boruff, B., Duncan, J., Murray, K. Schipperijn, J. Beck, B., Stratton, G., Griffiths, L., Fry, R., & Christian, H. (2024). ‘Understanding variations in the built environment over time to inform longitudinal studies of young children’s physical activity behaviour – The BEACHES Project’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2024-08. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland. DOI: 10.14264/0ae8a48