Background and Purpose
Three important factors have become clear when one considers the wealth of research on the link between a community's environment and its social problems: (1) a "community" is a multivalent concept that varies among neighborhoods where their structural characteristics can be defined by both individual and aggregate factors, including race or ethnicity, home ownership, family structure, socioeconomic conditions, diversity and crime. As Robert J. Sampson explains "'communities function in terms of social capital as well as social control"; (2) few studies have adequately investigated the physical attributes of neighborhood as a possible determinant of adolescents' mental health and delinquent behavior; and (3) practically all such studies have been conducted in affluent countries. To fill these gaps in knowledge, in this study we examined the influence of negative physical environment on youth substance use among youth living in an urban area in Santiago, Chile.
Data are from an ongoing NIDA-funded study of drug use with over 700 13-17 year olds (M=14 years, 51% male) from municipalities of mid- to low- socioeconomic status. In 2008-2009, youth completed Wave 1 assessments that consisted of a 2-hr interviewer-administered questionnaire with comprehensive questions on drug use, drug opportunities, including individual, familial, and neighborhood characteristics. Wave 2 assessments will be completed two years from now. All measures were pilot tested and revised prior to commencing the study. In order to supplement the adolescents self-reported neighborhood information, administrative statistics on poverty and physical attributes of the neighborhoods where the youth live were obtained from publicly available data prepared by the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism in Chile ('Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo'). For this study, we selected seven of the 27 'comunas' (equivalent to neighborhood districts in the U.S.) from where youth were sampled because these seven include more than ten respondents, a sufficient number to obtain robust results. Data were analyzed with regression models and GIS.
First we found that youth perception of neighborhood crime is positively associated with greater availability and opportunity to use drugs. Second, this study demonstrated that neighborhood crime is more conspicuously associated with illicit drug use (i.e., marijuana, cocaine, pasta base) than with the use of "legal" substances such as alcohol and cigarettes. Third, negative neighborhood physical attributes (i.e., lack of green spaces, non-paved sidewalks) were more highly associated with youth drug use than "traditional" variables like neighborhood unemployment rate and education level.
Conclusions and Implications
Further research is needed to understand why some neighborhood characteristics are associated with youth drug use while others are not. For example, crime, but not neighborhood poverty, was associated with the use of drugs. Communities may be able to reduce the drug problems not only by reducing crime but also by improving their physical environment at a neighborhood level. Identifying precisely delineated and specific neighborhood effects will be a key to developing more effectively targeted policy in the future.