London promotes itself as the ‘Global City’: open and inclusive, thrilling, and thriving through the diversity of its inhabitants. Whilst, on many levels, this is an accurate depiction, one group is consistently being overlooked in the design of London’s urban space: children. The UK’s capital is not a friendly environment for kids, resulting in some rather dire statistics. Today, less than a quarter of young Londoners meet minimum activity guidelines, whilst at the same time nearly four out of ten children in Year 6 suffer from excess weight, beating even New York to claim the top spot. The consequence is an inactivity and obesity epidemic of unparalleled proportions, which the national Government and health services fail to adequately address.
As a Health Geographer, Lander Bosch is interested in the relation between the places where people live, and how these influence their health and wellbeing. His PhD at Caius in Geography focuses on the built environment of primary schoolchildren in London, and how this stimulates or hampers their outdoor activity and health.
In order to analyse a diverse group of over 2,000 London primary schoolchildren, Lander carried out a large-scale spatial epidemiological study, in collaboration with UCL Great Ormond Street Hospital. “In addition to this quantitative epidemiological study, I also set out to understand London through the eyes of children living there, with the aim of gathering data on the children’s own experiences and views of the world around them by exploring their physical body movements as they unfolded in real time and space,” said Lander.
57 primary schoolchildren from different London Boroughs, schools, backgrounds, ethnicity, gender and age were selected and assigned the role of local neighbourhood expert. As part of the study, Lander was able to observe these children as they took him on a guided tour through their home neighbourhood, or allowed him to join their commute to and from school. Lander explains how valuable these interactions were to his research, “These ‘go-along interviews’ paint a captivating picture of how young Londoners interact with and experience the public space that surrounds them in relation to their physical activity. In combination with precise physical activity data through a Fitbit and activity diary which the children kept for a week, their narratives and my personal observations allow for an in-depth insight in the drivers of and barriers to children’s activity and wellbeing in different parts of London.”
The preliminary findings show that, consistent with the downward activity trends observed in recent years, only a minority of children meet the recommended minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day. It also highlights two key drivers: first, young Londoners are confronted with an urban environment that poses significant risk and offers few opportunities to be active outside; and second, the present-day paradigm of good parenting – avoiding risk, promoting stranger danger, focussing on academic achievement rather than physical activity – results in a dramatic change in the activity practices of children. Lander’s research recommendations will provide ways forward for London Borough Councils to adjust the built environment to foster physical activity among schoolchildren living in urban areas like London.
This week, the schoolchildren from Lander’s study visited Cambridge to gain an insight into Lander’s world, as a student at Caius. “During the interviews, the schoolchildren showed a deep connection with their home neighbourhood, but they also demonstrated an interest in what it means to be a student-researcher, and in University life in general. As they were so kind to guide me through their home environment, I considered it to be a nice way to thank them by returning the favour and giving them the opportunity to visit ‘my’ daily environment and guide them around Cambridge,” said Lander. The students toured the Old Courts of Gonville & Caius, before enjoying a lunch in Hall. They also visited the newly re-opened Museum of Zoology. Reflecting on the visit, Lander said, “It has been a privilege working with these children, and I really hope that offering them this experience can inspire them to pursue Cambridge and Caius as an opportunity for higher education.”