Clemson Researchers Find Link Between Built Environment and Latinx Health

August 12, 2019

We all know that healthy eating and being active are important. According to Clemson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management assistant professor Mariela Fernandez, however, where you live also has more of a role in our overall health than you might think. In fact, she says, research shows that some neighborhoods are more detrimental to your health than others.

“There’s a documented link between your health and whether or not you live in a built environment with access to core services such as health care, internet, transportation and recreational infrastructure,” says Fernandez. “If you live in this type of environment, you’re more likely to be physically active and make healthier choices, because the tools to do that are readily available to you.”

Drs. Mariela Fernandez and Garrett Stone

Drs. Mariela Fernandez and Garrett Stone led a systematic review about Latinx health and the rural built environment.

Many Latinx people, however, particularly those who have recently immigrated to the United States, are more likely to live in rural communities without access to those core services. Families are drawn to these communities for several reasons, such as affordability of housing, the possibility of increased job opportunities, and existing socio-cultural networks.

Although research has been conducted on the link between the built environment and health, Fernandez and former graduate student Garrett Stone wanted to find out how much of that existing research focused on Latinx communities. In 2016, they teamed up with undergraduate student Alondra DeSantiago to conduct a systematic review of academic literature that examines the influence of the rural built environment on Latinx health outcomes and behavior in the United States. The results of that review were recently published in Ethnicity and Health.

The group looked at nearly 2,500 articles before narrowing them down to approximately 146 full-text sources for their final review. Results suggested that the lack of a built environment in rural Latinx communities does contribute to negative physical, mental and behavioral outcomes.

“We found that Latinx families living in rural areas throughout the United States are facing a number of challenges, including access to health care and medical information,” says Stone, now an Assistant Professor at Vancouver Island University. “It doesn’t help that these families tend to be living in run-down, crowded places, and are disproportionally exposed to environmental hazards such as pesticides and agricultural run-off, which increases their need for ongoing medical services that are out of reach.”

The study found that health disparities are exacerbated by the fact that rural Latinx communities have become new destination sites for first generation immigrants who have unique challenges and concerns tied to their documentation status, English language proficiency and unfamiliarity with the medical system.

“This adds another barrier to those who, even if they had the means to search for health information, don’t know how, where or if they are able to access basic services,” said Fernandez.

Although the review identified several issues for Latinx communities in rural areas, Fernandez notes that they also found several limitations to existing research, necessitating further study.

“The articles we reviewed made clear connections between the rural built environment and Latinx health outcomes and behaviors, but few explored those connections in detail or if changes to the built environment could result in changes in health over time,” says Fernandez. “We see a clear and pressing need for more focused research in this area.”

Fernandez plans to use the findings of the systematic review to start building relationships with local rural communities in South Carolina to verify her study findings and work with families to create a plan of action to address them.

Initial findings can also provide useful information to those working in the field. For example, urban planners can use the study results to better understand the needs of Latinx communities and find ways to creatively design communities. Medical professionals can start to prepare for an increase in Latinx patients in their practices, as these groups continue to migrate into rural communities, or use the study to help advocate on behalf of their patients for better living and working conditions.

This study extends Fernandez’s research on how the lack of access to green spaces can affect the health outcomes of Latinx communities. Her dissertation on using the non-profit sector to advance social and environmental justice received the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration’s 2016 Best Paper Award. Other research activities have included projects on the programmatic aspects limiting Latinx participation in a recreation center, the development of life skills in Latinx youth and the cultural competence youth leaders need in order to address challenges arising from an increasingly diverse society.

Related: Office of Hispanic Outreach at Clemson University