Urban environment and cognitive and motor function in children from four European birth cohorts

Environ Int. 2022 Jan:158:106933. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2021.106933. Epub 2021 Oct 15.


Background: The urban environment may influence neurodevelopment from conception onwards, but there is no evaluation of the impact of multiple groups of exposures simultaneously. We investigated the association between early-life urban environment and cognitive and motor function in children.

Methods: We used data from 5403 mother-child pairs from four population-based birth-cohorts (UK, France, Spain, and Greece). We estimated thirteen urban home exposures during pregnancy and childhood, including: built environment, natural spaces, and air pollution. Verbal, non-verbal, gross motor, and fine motor functions were assessed using validated tests at five years old. We ran adjusted multi-exposure models using the Deletion-Substitution-Addition algorithm.

Results: Higher greenness exposure within 300 m during pregnancy was associated with higher verbal abilities (1.5 points (95% confidence interval 0.4, 2.7) per 0.20 unit increase in greenness). Higher connectivity density within 100 m and land use diversity during pregnancy were related to lower verbal abilities. Childhood exposure to PM2.5 mediated 74% of the association between greenness during childhood and verbal abilities. Higher exposure to PM2.5 during pregnancy was related to lower fine motor function (-1.2 points (-2.1, -0.4) per 3.2 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5). No associations were found with non-verbal abilities and gross motor function.

Discussion: This study suggests that built environment, greenness, and air pollution may impact child cognitive and motor function at five years old. This study adds evidence that well-designed urban planning may benefit children's cognitive and motor development.

Keywords: Children; Cognitive function; Cohort; Motor function; Urban environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants* / analysis
  • Air Pollutants* / toxicity
  • Air Pollution* / analysis
  • Air Pollution* / statistics & numerical data
  • Birth Cohort
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Particulate Matter / analysis
  • Particulate Matter / toxicity
  • Pregnancy
  • Spain


  • Air Pollutants
  • Particulate Matter