Associations between the built environment and emotional, social and physical indicators of early child development across high and low socioeconomic neighbourhoods

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Emerging evidence indicates that the built environment influences early child development. Access to, and the quality of, built environment features vary with the socioeconomic status (SES) of neighbourhoods. It has not yet been established whether the association between built environment features and early child development varies by neighbourhood SES. We sought to identify built environment features associated with neighbourhood-level variations in the early child development domains of physical health and wellbeing, social competence, and emotional maturity, and how these associations differ among high and low SES neighbourhoods where child development patterns follow expected outcomes (“on-diagonal” neighbourhoods) and where child development patterns differ from expected outcomes (“off-diagonal” neighbourhoods). This cross-sectional study analysed data from the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) for children residing in 3839 neighbourhoods in the Perth and Peel metropolitan areas of Western Australia. Children's AEDC scores were aggregated at the area-level and merged with Geographic Information Systems derived measures of neighbourhood residential density, parks, walkability, community facilities and public transport. Multivariate logistic regressions modelled the odds of low and high SES neighbourhoods having a higher proportion of children developmentally “on-track” (scores in the 26th to 100th percentile of the AEDC) or “not on-track” (scores in the bottom 25th percentile of the AEDC) for each built environment feature. In high SES neighbourhoods, better development across all three domains was associated with greater residential density and improved access to parks, public transport, learning, childcare and health services. Conversely, in low SES neighbourhoods, greater residential density was associated with better physical, but poorer social and emotional development; increased traffic and street connectivity were associated with poorer physical and emotional development; shorter distances to parks, learning, childcare and health services were associated with poorer physical and emotional development; and more services and public transport stops were associated with poorer emotional development. The mixed findings in low SES neighbourhoods suggest that positive associations with built environment features seen in one domain of early child development may be negative in other domains. The reasons for the mixed findings in low SES neighbourhoods are likely multifactorial and may include parental neighbourhood perceptions, as well as quality and usage of built environment features. These findings can be used to inform state and local governments to establish child-friendly town planning and urban design features. Further research is needed to confirm the interplay between SES, early child development, the built environment and other unmeasured factors to better inform public health policy.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113974
JournalInternational Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022


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