Built Environment 101

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Built Environment 101

The built environment is a term used to describe the man-made objects or spaces that form a community. These can include buildings, roads, sidewalks, parks, schools, work sites, and homes. It can also encompass services provided to a community, such as public transportation, water, and sanitation.


How are the built environment and health connected?

The built environment impacts the health of the public by creating spaces that either promote or prevent good health and well-being (Design for Health, 2017).

The built environment can...

  • Influence rates of physical activity through community design efforts like planning for sidewalks.
  • Impact levels of fruit and vegetable consumption through development.
  • Limit human exposure to air pollutants through land use planning. Public health experts are working with planners, developers, engineers, and transportation authorities, among others to intentionally design communities in ways that advance health equity, prevent disease, and improve overall health (NACCHO, 2017).

What is equity?

Harris County Public Health (HCPH) defines health equity as a state in which every person has the opportunity to attain their full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of socioeconomic or environmental conditions. One example would be providing individuals with a bicycle that meets their needs rather than providing the same bike to everyone.


Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

How does Public Health create change?

Public Health takes a Health in All Policies approach to improving population health by providing key decision-makers with research, analysis, and recommendations for incorporating health considerations into the decision-making process across sectors and policy areas.

Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) and Health Impact Reviews (HIRs) [LINK] are utilized to review plan development processes and provide feedback. The HIA and HIR tools are used to understand the health implications of proposed policies or plans in a community.

Health in All Policies

Health in All Policies (HiAP) is a collaborative approach to improving population health by incorporating health considerations into decision-making across sectors and policy areas. The goal of HiAP is to ensure that all decision-makers are informed about the health consequences of various policy options during the policy development process. (NACCHO 2017)

Health Community Design Examples

To better understand how built environment can help to make a community healthy, explore the examples of design principles and benefits found locally in the Houston and Harris County area.

Health Community Design Principles
Healthy Community Design Benefits


Mixed-land use

Public transit

Pedestrian and bicycle-friendly

Accessible and socially equitable community

Housing for different incomes and different stages of life

Green spaces and parks that are easy to walk to

Safe public places for social interaction

Fresh, healthy food outlets


Improve air and water quality

Lower the risk of traffic-related injuries

Increase opportunities for physical activity

Increase access to healthy food

Increase social connectivity and sense of community

Ensure social equity for all community members

Promote good mental health

Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention Healthy Community Design Principles and Benefits (CDC)

Healthy Community Design Worksheet

For more information on what healthy community design looks like, click on the worksheet created by HCPH below.

Healthy Community Design Worksheet

  1. Design for Health. (2017, November). Integrating Health into Comprehensive Planning. Retrieved from Resources: http://designforhealth.net/integrating-health-into-comprehensive-planning/
  2. National Association of County and City Health Officials. (2017, November). Healthy Community Design. Retrieved from Programs: Community Health: https://www.naccho.org/programs/community-health/healthy-community-design
  3. Adapted from: Public Health Institute. (2013). Health in All Policies: A Guide for State and Local Government. Retrieved from http://www.phi.org/resources/?resource=hiapguide
  4. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, November). Healthy Community Design Checklist Toolkit. Retrieved from Healthy Places: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/toolkit/