Strategies to Refine Annual Business Establishment Data across More than Two Decades

Analyses of place and health have been largely cross-sectional, and new challenges are faced as we wrangle longitudinal geographic data.  Our group just published a manuscript detailing our work to clean and code data on all NYC metropolitan area businesses over the period 1990-2010.  Our goal was to use twenty years of business establishment data to characterize changes in neighborhoods in terms of the retail food environment, access to physical activity venues, access to medical facilities and access to other commercial and not-for-profit establishments.

Our process included re-geocoding 3,161,715 business locations to avoid disproportionately missing data on older businesses; identifying and coding health-relevant businesses such as food sources and fitness venues across the years; and collapsing potential duplicate business records by location, year, and business category.  Spot-checking was used, and the data are set up to allow for sensitivity analyses to check the robustness to these decisions as we move forward.

This effort was championed by lead author Tanya Kaufman, who has engaged in this effort since her MPH practicum project using these data.  Daniel Sheehan was the lead geographer on the project and developed the re-geocoding strategies and created time-lapse visualizations of businesses entering and existing the environment. One of Dan’s visualizations can be seen here.  It shows the location of Healthy Food Outlets from 1990 to 2010.

The focus of this project was not only to understand and improve the quality of data for future analysis, but also to develop scalable approaches that can be used with the larger national dataset.  We have recently been funded to purchase the nationwide business establishment data and to link these data to ongoing cohort studies of cardiovascular disease  (R01AG049970-01A1, PI: Lovasi).


Posted in Economic Development, Food Environment, Methods | Leave a comment

CDC Releases New Built Environment Assessment Tool

Viewing 125th Street

Viewing 125th Street

The CDC released a new direct systematic observation data collection instrument for measuring the core features and quality of the built environment related to behaviors that affect health, especially behaviors such as walking, biking, and other types of physical activity.  The core features assessed in the BE Tool include: built environment infrastructure (e.g., road type, curb cuts/ramps, intersections/crosswalks, traffic control, transportation), walkability (e.g. sidewalk/path features, walking safety, aesthetics & amenities), bikeability (e.g., bicycle lane/path features), recreational sites and structures, and the food environment (e.g., access to grocery stores, convenience stores, farmers markets, etc.).

Get the tool [HERE]


Posted in Community Needs Assessment, Methods, Walkability | Leave a comment

Systematic Review of Literature on Neighborhood Park Access and Physical Activity

Trail map for Fort Tryon Park - more difficult trails

Trail map for Fort Tryon Park

Providing neighborhood access to clean, safe and engaging park spaces is a strategy being adopted by many communities to promote physical activity.  We just published a systematic review of the literature assessing the link between park access and physical activity. After screening 10,949 abstracts that met the search criteria of 1) published between January 1990 and June 2013; 2) US-based with a sample size greater than 100 individuals; 3) included built environment measures related to parks or trails; and 4) included objectively measured physical activity as an outcome, 20 research studies were identified for review.

Five articles reported a significant positive association between parks and physical activity. Nine studies found no association, and six studies had mixed findings.  Studies that used study subject’s self-reported (vs. independently-measured) measures of neighborhood park environment characteristics and smaller (vs. larger) neighborhood definitions were more likely to find positive associations. We recommend strategies for further research, employing standardized reporting and innovative study designs to better understand the relationship of parks and physical activity.


Posted in Parks, Systematic Review | Leave a comment

Mailman School’s Social Epidemiology Cluster launches a Blog


The Social Epidemiology Cluster is one of the six thematic units within the Mailman School of Public Health‘s Department of Epidemiology and is home to BEH members Andrew Rundle and Gina Lovasi.  The Cluster has just launched a blog that will highlight the importance of research and interventions focused on social determinants of health for promoting population health and reducing disparities.  The blog will include commentary on research news and policy debates and initiatives, and will disseminate research findings from work being performed at Columbia University.

Posted in Social Determinants | Leave a comment

Neighborhood Safety and Physical Activity

Would you go for a walk around the block or in a local park if you thought your neighborhood unsafe and you would be in danger? At BEH, we care a lot about understanding constraints on outdoor physical activity, including (maybe) safety.

The link between neighborhood safety and physical activity has been tricky to assess, in part because physical activity is tricky to measure (questionnaires are vulnerable to reporting biases and don’t capture small-scale differences in activity between people whereas accelerometers and other activity trackers are sensitive to proper positioning), and in part because no single construct completely represents neighborhood safety – some researchers study fear of victimization, others study crime rates, and still others study aesthetic features such as disorder that may affect the perception that a neighborhood is unsafe.


Download the PAA Poster

We recently investigated several measures of safety, including self-reported neighborhood safety, crime rates, and a measure of neighborhood disorder we constructed using Street View imagery in relation to accelerometer-measured and self-reported physical activity, using data from the Physical Activity and Transit survey undertaken by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. We found that independently observed measures of neighborhood safety and disorder were not associated with any measures of physical activity, but that reporting the neighborhood to be unsafe was associated with increased odds of reporting no recreational physical activity.

The initial results of our work were presented as a poster at the recent annual meeting of the Population Association of America.

Posted in Aesthetics, Physical Disorder, Safety | Leave a comment

Spatial Patterns of Exposure to Tree Pollen in Cities

Betula sp. pollen [Birch Pollen] photo by Guy Robinson, Fordam University

Betula sp. pollen [Birch Pollen] photo by Guy Robinson, Fordam University

BEH investigator Gina Lovasi has recently worked with colleagues from Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) on a systematic review of how tree pollen levels vary spatially within cities (available at  This review is part of our larger effort to inform refinement and evaluation of massive urban tree planting efforts currently underway in cities such as NYC and Los Angeles.

Seasonal allergies to tree pollen and other outdoor allergens (grasses, ragweed, mold) trigger respiratory symptoms and asthma exacerbations in urban populations.  Tree pollen in particular tends to affect people early in mid-spring.  While current pollen levels can readily be compared across broad areas of the US (for example see, less is known about small scale variation of exposure within a city.  Single rooftop monitors tracking daily pollen counts are often used to represent the experience of the entire city.  Yet multiple monitoring points would be needed to help us understand how much exposure to tree pollen is driven by a city’s overall tree canopy and regional context versus vegetation in the immediate vicinity. Continue reading

Posted in Urban Forestry | Leave a comment

A SMART START: A Symposium on Preventing Childhood Obesity

On April 16th the Mailman School is presenting an afternoon long symposium, “A SMART START:  A Symposium on Preventing Childhood Obesity“, focused on prenatal and early childhood determinants of obesity.  This symposium is part of a month long series of events in April we are calling “Public Health Fights Obesity”.   You can RSVP to attend the symposium by clicking HERE


1:00–5:00 P.M.

A Symposium on Preventing Childhood Obesity

Black Building, 650 West 168th Street
Alumni Auditorium

PLENARY: Why Focus on Pregnancy and Early Childhood?

Andrew Rundle, DrPH, Associate Professor of Epidemiology; Co-Director of Obesity Prevention Initiative, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

PANEL 1: Gestational Weight Change, Prenatal Factors and Childhood Obesity

Moderator: Virginia Rauh, ScD, Professor of Population and Family Health, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health


Dympna Gallagher, EdD, Associate Professor of Nutritional Medicine, Institute of Human Nutrition, Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons

David A Savitz, PhD, Vice President for Research, Professor of Epidemiology, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Brown University

Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, MD, Associate Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, Director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine Fellowship Program, Medical Director of Perinatal High-Risk Clinic, Columbia University Medical Center

PANEL 2: Early Childhood Factors and Early Childcare Practice and Policies

Moderator: Gretchen Van Wye, PhD, MA, Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Vital Statistics, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Division of Epidemiology


Cynthia Colen, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Sociology, The Ohio State University

Cathy Nonas, MS, RD, Senior Advisor, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Sally E Findley, PhD, Professor of Population and Family Health & Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

Round Table: Future Directions for Research and Action

Moderator: Y. Claire Wang, MD, ScD, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management and Co-Director of Obesity Prevention Initiative, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health


Kiyah Duffey, PhD, Director of Global Scientific Affairs, LA Sutherland Group; Parenting blogger and proud mother of three, ages 5 and under

Tina Kauh, PhD, Program Officer, Research-Evaluation-Learning, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Posted in Childhood | Leave a comment

NE-WAS: Welcoming Big Data to the Neighborhood

Like most researchers investigating neighborhood determinants of health, we are excited that both government and the private sector are making more and more spatially located data available. But even as new data sources allow us to characterize study subjects’ environments more completely, the sheer number of potentially interacting contextual variables we can now study introduces analytic complexity. Drawing an analogy with genomic research, we propose the ‘neighborhood environment-wide association study’ (or NE-WAS) as one approach to address the complexity.

Three VsNeighborhood research is increasingly a high-volume, high-variety ‘Big Data’ endeavor. Even as neighborhood research mainstays like the US Census and American Community Survey continue to be updated, new forms and sources of data like social media, remote sensing, and commercial aggregators are providing increasingly detailed insight into neighborhood conditions. Furthermore, through GIS tools and spatial analytic approaches, researchers are defining neighborhoods in creative new ways including network buffers, pill buffers, and neighborhood hulls. With more data at more spatial resolutions, we can characterize study subjects’ neighborhoods in high-dimensional space – for example, one dataset we work with has 1,485 separate variables that describe some aspect of each subject’s residential neighborhood. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

CANVAS featured on


The Science of Cities blog over at featured the CANVAS system and our work developing methods to conduct virtual neighborhood audits. In the article’s Henry Grabar describes his experience using CANVAS to collect neighborhood audit data on four blocks in Washington DC.


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Evidence Based Investment in Public Spaces

NYRP_TheHavenProject_LogoThrough the development of numerous initiatives directed at transforming green spaces across the city, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) has improved the quality of life for New Yorkers. Due to her track record of studying green spaces and streetscapes, BEH investigator Gina Lovasi was invited by NYRP to join the planning team for an emerging effort: The Haven Project. The Haven Project aims to renovate a network of open spaces in the Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods of the South Bronx, while simultaneously demonstrating measurable health and social outcomes resulting from an improved physical environment. Since the fall of 2014 Gina Lovasi, along with Lori Fingerhut, has led our engagement in this planning effort.  Our role included conducting a rapid literature review tailored to the needs of the project (download the report).  This literature review focused on informing strategies for redesigning public spaces to enhance opportunities for population health.

NYRP_The_Haven_ProjectCommunity meetings and discussions within the planning team shaped the literature review sections and areas of emphasis.  Our review focused first on three health-related outcomes of particular concern in Mott Haven and Port Morris: physical activity, clean air, and pedestrian safety. We reviewed the key drivers of these outcomes in the local physical environment, with a focus on leverage points that could support improvements in these outcomes. Next, our review examined three modifiable aspects of the local physical environment with potential relevance to health needs of the area residents: parks, trees, and pedestrian path enhancements.  For each of these, we sought to describe the range of potential health impacts, and the multipliers that seem to maximize health benefits. Finally, we briefly discussed literature on the processes driving neighborhood change, and how process itself may be crucial to realizing behavioral health benefits. Continue reading

Posted in Community Needs Assessment, Parks, Urban Forestry | Leave a comment