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What is a Built Environment?

Josie Myers
Josie Myers

The term built environment refers to the structures, and infrastructure, that are made by man. This can include everything from simple housing to entire cities, and even man-made outdoor environments. Built environments provide the basic necessities for human life as we know it, and therefore must be functional and healthy for all. Finding this balance is a complicated and challenging process, and one that is consistently being refined.

A built environment includes all structures created by people, including infrastructure elements like streets, sidewalks, water and sewer lines, and electric and other utilities. Human behavior experts and city planners work to discover the most positive use of space for people. A single building can also be studied for its effectiveness. Commercial building designs are constantly changing layouts to better accommodate the business that takes place within the walls.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

There are serious concerns about the health impact that a built environment has on people. Studies have shown that people, particularly those in low income areas, can be negatively influenced by their built environment. Advocates of healthy living point to the lack of adequate exercise space and healthy eating facilities as some of the key reasons why those in low-income areas have poor health. Independent civic groups often study particular areas and implement changes to the environment to encourage a more well-rounded community.

A built environment can also be an outdoor space that has been manipulated by man. Community parks and other engineered open space areas are examples of outdoor places that are considered built environments. There is a challenging balance between preserving space and making it usable for the people, particularly for tourists at large national parks. Some naturalists wish to keep land as it is, without adding additional walking trails or other elements to the areas. The overall outcome is that most large parks have designated spots for tourism, while other areas remain untouched.

Sustainability is one of the most recent concerns when planning a new environment, or upgrades to an old one. Green energy sources and building materials are being used more than ever. An example of this is the town of Greensburg, Kansas, which was destroyed by a tornado in 2007. The town was rebuilt using sustainable materials and energy-conserving power sources. It has gone on to be known as the "Greenest town in America." Communities that undergo greening such as this serve as social experiments into positively-functioning built environments.

Discussion Comments


@ FrameMaker- One of the most important things to consider when moving to a new city is if it will fit with your lifestyle preferences. For many younger couples, singles, and work minded professionals prefer walk-able neighborhoods. There are many great cities that cater to the needs of residents without a car more than those with a car. Indexes exist that rank cities on walk-ability. These cities feature somewhat sustainable built environments that focus on pedestrian and transit oriented zones.

Some of the highest-ranking cities are San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Washington DC. The site "Walk Score" lists the top forty walk-able cities as well as ranks every city in every state. You can examine the criterion that makes a city walk-able, as well as check out the amenities within walking distance (1 mile) in any neighborhood.


@ Framemaker- Some of the best layouts for cities are ones that incorporate the natural environment with the built environment, allow for mixed use neighborhoods and zoning, and incorporate complete roadways. These three factors will help a city reduce pollution, decrease the distance that people drive and commute, and encourage the use of multi-modal transportation.

Maintaining a healthy mix of natural space in the built environment prevents building emissions by reducing the urban heat island effect. This will contribute to indoor and outdoor air quality, and improves the quality of life for everyone in the city.

Allowing for mixed-use zoning keeps every amenity within reach throughout a neighborhood. People can work, socialize, and live in the same area, all while walking or taking public transit. Finally making roadways equally accommodating to cyclists, car, public transit, and pedestrian traffic will ultimately reduce traffic congestion.


What techniques can city managers employ so that the built environment minimizes pollution from buildings and transportation? I want to know what techniques work on a scale of planning and zoning, rather than the types of green materials that designers can use within buildings. What type of layout does a clean and congestion free city have? What are some of the best cities in the country for someone who does not want to drive everywhere? Thanks!

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      Scientist with beakers