The Built Environment

photo of area in Wilmington's historic sectionThe built environment of a community comprises all buildings, spaces, and structures that have been built or created by people.  It includes homes, schools, workplaces, parks and recreation facilities, greenways, and transportation systems.  There is a growing body of evidence that the built environment—the man-made physical structures and the infrastructure of communities—is an important, but often ignored, social determinant of health.   According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division Director of Nutrition and Physical Activity William Dietz, “The environmental factors are much more compelling toward obesity than they were 30 years ago.”*    

Sprawling land-use and development patterns have reinforced the need to travel by car rather than walk to stores, schools, places of business, and jobs.   Poor planning decisions can influence how people travel to work or school, choices about diet and nutrition, availability of safe and affordable housing, the quality of the environment, and access to services, and opportunities for physical activity.  In addition, a neglect of community-design principles, lack of walkable infrastructure, and compartmentalized built environments can lead to less active lifestyles and a greater incidence of chronic obesity and related diseases. 

Regional, state, and local planning decisions (e.g., land use, zoning, development, and transportation) can have a tremendous impact on the health of a local community.  To address deficiencies in the built environment, a municipality should proactively plan to make infrastructure improvements (link to builtenvironmentimprovements.html).  Community design guidelines can be developed to improve pedestrian networks, trail systems, streetscapes, and recreation facilities to encourage physical activity and universal accessibility.

Learn more about planning a community and altering the built environment to improve health outcomes.
View/download this section of the resource guide. PDF icon

Learn more about land-use planning as it relates to community health by registering for one of IPA’s Planning Education Program courses.

View the following toolkit sections for tips on improving a community safetyaccessibility, and work and school environments to remove environmental barriers to healthy behavior.

*Walsh B, “It’s Not Just Genetics,” Time Magazine, June 12, 2008. Available at,9171,1813984,00.html.