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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

How adolescents perceive their communities: a qualitative study that explores the relationship between health and the physical environment

Kristin Mmari1*, Hannah Lantos1, Heena Brahmbhatt1, Sinead Delany-Moretlwe2, Chaohua Lou3, Rajib Acharya4 and Adesola Sangowawa5

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe Street, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA

2 Witts Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, University of Witwatersand, Johannesburg, South Africa

3 Shanghai Institute of Planned Parenthood Research, Shanghai, China

4 Population Council, New Delhi, India

5 College of Medicine, Institute of Child Health, University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:349  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-349

Published: 12 April 2014

Abstract

Background

The Well-Being of Adolescents in Vulnerable Environments (WAVE) study was conducted among adolescents aged 15-19 years in Baltimore, Ibadan, Johannesburg, New Delhi, and Shanghai to examine perceived factors related to their health. A preliminary analysis of the data, unexpectedly, revealed that the influence of the physical environment on adolescent health was a dominant theme across every site examined. To explore this further, this paper analyzed the specific components of the physical environment that were perceived to influence health, and how they contributed to various health outcomes across sites.

Methods

Researchers in each site conducted in-depth interviews among adolescents; community mapping and focus groups among adolescents; a Photovoice methodology, in which adolescents were trained in photography and took photos of the meaning of ‘health’ in their communities; and key informant interviews among adults who work with young people. A total 529 participants from across the sites were included in the analysis.

Results

Findings showed that while there was surprising uniformity in how adolescents characterized their physical environment, perceived health outcomes related to the physical environment varied by site and gender. In Baltimore and Johannesburg, vacant homes and the lack of recreation facilities were perceived to impact on sexual and reproductive health problems for girls, while among boys they contributed to drugs and violence. In Shanghai, New Delhi, and Ibadan, garbage and trash observed in their communities were perceived to have a higher impact on infectious and chronic diseases.

Conclusions

As the world continues to urbanize, our study points to a strong need to examine how the physical aspects of a living environment contribute to the health of adolescents. Specific aspects, such as housing, safety, garbage, and recreational spaces must all be examined as possible pathways for making improvements to health of adolescents, particularly among those living in poor urban environments.