J Epidemiol Community Health 60:389-395 doi:10.1136/jech.2005.043281
  • Evidence based public health policy and practice

Neighbourhoods and health: a GIS approach to measuring community resource accessibility

  1. Jamie Pearce1,
  2. Karen Witten2,
  3. Phil Bartie1
  1. 1GeoHealth Laboratory, Department of Geography, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
  2. 2Centre for Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation, Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr J Pearce
 GeoHealth Laboratory, Department of Geography, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8020, New Zealand; jamie.pearce{at}
  • Accepted 23 December 2005


Objective: Recent studies suggest an association between the contextual attributes of neighbourhoods and the health status of residents. However, there has been a scarcity of studies that have directly measured the material characteristics of neighbourhoods theorised to have an impact on health and health inequalities. This paper describes the development of an innovative methodology to measure geographical access to a range of community resources that have been empirically linked to health. Geographical information systems (GIS) were applied to develop precise measures of community resource accessibility for small areas at a national scale.

Design: Locational access to shopping, education, recreation, and health facilities was established for all 38 350 census meshblocks across New Zealand. Using GIS, distance measures were calculated from the population weighted centroid of each meshblock to 16 specific types of facilities theorised as potentially health related. From these data, indices of community resource accessibility for all New Zealand neighbourhoods were constructed.

Results: Clear regional variations in geographical accessibility to community resources exist across the country, particularly between urban and rural areas of New Zealand. For example, the average travel time to the nearest food shop ranged from less than one minute to more than 244 minutes. Noticeable differences were also apparent between neighbourhoods within urban areas.

Conclusions: Recent advances in GIS and computing capacity have made it feasible to directly measure access to health related community resources at the neighbourhood level. The construction of access indices for specific community resources will enable health researchers to examine with greater precision, variations in the material characteristics of neighbourhoods and the pathways through which neighbourhoods impact on specific health outcomes.


  • Funding: this research was funded by the New Zealand Health Research Council, as part of the Neighbourhoods and Health project within the Health Inequalities Research Programme.

  • Competing interests: none.