Amber L. Pearson

Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences, Michigan State University
Adjunct Research Fellow - University of Otago

Theme 2: Neighborhoods and Health - How Can The Built, Physical and Social Environment Promote Health?

Dr. Pearson’s research contributes to our understanding of the relationships between where we live, play, work, and study to our health. Within this theme, her work involves aspects of the built, physical and social environments. She pays particular attention to inequalities in neighborhood exposures and how these (potentially amenable) features may play a role in health inequalities. Given the gross health disparities between the rich, poor, and various ethnic groups, Dr. Pearson has explored possible routes to lessening inequalities.

For example, she has examined features of the built environment that may promote healthy behaviors including fruit/vegetable consumption and physical activity and health outcomes such as obesity and mental health. She also examined how neighborhood features may actually hinder unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and harmful alcohol consumption. See the table below for examples of research Dr. Pearson has conducted in each domain.

Research Study: Kids' Cam

Study Designs and Aims

Kids’Cam aimed to explore children’s everyday environments by documenting what children see and where they go throughout the day - while at home, at school and during most other activities. To directly and objectively capture the environment in which children live, children were asked to wear a GPS device, and a camera that hangs around the neck that automatically took still photographs every ~ 7 seconds. Each participant, in Wellington, New Zealand, wore the devices for four days. This project was one of the first in the world to use these cutting-edge technologies to explore children’s environments. The methodologies employed in this study can be found here.

The main purpose was to evaluate children’s exposure to unhealthy food (called ‘non-core’) marketing and examine possible inequalities. They found that, on average, children were exposed to non-core food marketing 27.3 times a day, or more than twice the average exposure to core food marketing. Most exposures occurred at home (33%), in public spaces (30%) and at school (19%). The study provides further evidence of the need for urgent action to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of unhealthy foods, and suggests the settings and media in which to act. Such action is necessary if the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity’s vision is to be achieved. Watch a short video about this study here.

Dr. Pearson also led and supervised a number of projects within the Kids’Cam study. For example, she explored when, where and who sees blue spaces and participates in blue recreation. She also supervised studies related to how to define the extent of children’s neighborhoods and children’s exposure to alcohol marketing, with Tim Chambers. They found that in supermarkets where alcohol was sold, children encountered alcohol marketing on 85% of their visits. Alcohol marketing was frequently near everyday goods (bread and milk) or entrance/exit.

Research Study: Household Water InSecurity Experiences (HWISE)

Study Designs and Aims

The purpose of this work is to develop a cross-cultural scale to assess household-level water insecurity that can be used across many ecological and geographic settings. To do this, an initial set of water insecurity questions related to the sub-domains of physical health, consumption, quantity, access and acquisition, cultural importance, and social considerations were tested in over 10 countries. These data were then used to refine the scale. Ultimately, the scale will resemble the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS) and the Latin American & Caribbean Household Food Security Measurement Scale (ELCSA), i.e. questions will ask the frequency that water-related activities could not occur in the prior month due to lack of water (e.g. not watering crops, going to sleep thirsty, etc.).

Our ability to measure food security at the household has been transformative for our understanding of the underlying causes of a range of poor health and nutrition outcomes, from depression and poor mental health to HIV. It has also been useful for developing interventions and policies to mitigate food insecurity, and has helped to elucidate why some interventions have not had their intended effects.

Water security, or “the ability to reliably access water in sufficient quantity and quality for all household members to support an active and health life” is critical for optimal agricultural productivity, nutrition and health. Currently, there is no cross-culturally reliable and valid scale to measure water insecurity at the household-level. We will use rigorous techniques to develop and validate such a scale. This study involves study teams in over 20 countries, and is led by Dr. Sera Young, Dr. Wendy Jepson and Dr. Amber Wutich. Dr. Pearson is on the Steering Committee and led data collection efforts in Arua, Uganda (with Dr. Gershim Asiki) and in Mérida, Mexico (with Dr. Cuau Sanchez).


In thinking through what water insecurity means, researchers in the consortium have argued for a relational approach to understanding water insecurity and how this type of thinking might move beyond a focus on the presence of the object (H2O) of water and turn our focus to the political structures and social processes through which water is secured. Current methods to define and address water insecurity are widely recognized to oversimplify and underestimate the global burden of household water insecurity. To move forward, entitlements and human capabilities, socio-cultural dynamics, and political institutions and processes should be considered, which can be adopted across cultural, geographic, and demographic contexts to assess hard-to-measure dimensions of household water insecurity.

Image from HWISE

Get in touch

Geography Building
Lab - Room 233A
673 Auditorium Rd., Room 231
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 432-7163