Measuring the Built Environment

Long wide tree-lined street next to a university

Communities looking to invest in changes to the built environment can make more informed decisions by understanding how these changes can promote healthy living and eventually, long- term population health outcomes. The following tools help to provide baseline information on key built environment design concepts and help to assess health outcomes associated with changes in the built environment. 
Built Environmental Scans and Walking Audits

There are many ways to assess the built environment. Below are examples of different scan and audit tools that evaluate the physical design of a community’s walking environment by collecting information on sidewalk availability, road volume, and amount of shade. They can help identify specific issues or barriers to safe and desirable walking routes. Additionally, audits inform stakeholders on potential solutions to encouraging safe access to street networks.

Rapid Environmental Scan Tool (REST)
The Harris County Public Health Built Environment and Health Impact Assessment (HCPH BE-HIA) Unit developed the REST which was adapted from the Pedestrian Environmental Data Scan (PEDS).1 REST collects data at the street segment level on pedestrian, bicycle, and drainage infrastructure, and a Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates for certain street elements and traffic control devices (e.g., bus stops, stop signs, pedestrian crossing signals). The REST field data can then be linked to a geospatial streets dataset and layered with socioeconomic data to form baseline maps of the walking environment. For additional training protocol and materials, please email builtenvironment@hcphes.org.

Other Resources for Scan and Audit Tools
Active Living Research outlines a variety of audit and scan tools that measure the built environment. Most of these tools are more comprehensive and useful for researchers.

American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Create the Good both have easy-to-use resources for community-driven built environment or walking audits.
AARPWalk Audit Tool Kit
Create the Good Sidewalks and Streets Survey

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidance on what a large employment center can do to increase physical activity in the work setting through conducting a walk audit.
Houston-Galveston Area Council’s (H-GAC) Pedestrian Evaluation Tool 
assesses the safety, comfort, and convenience of street segments and intersections.


1. Clifton, Kelly J., Livi Smith, Andrea D., & Rodriguez, Daniel. “The Development and Testing of an Audit for the Pedestrian Environment,” Journal of Landscape & Urban Planning, 80(1-2), 2007. pp. 95-110. 
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2006.06.008
Retrieved from http://planningandactivity.unc.edu/RP1.htm

 

Calculating Network Connectivity

Network connectivity is an indicator of how easily people can travel from one place to another. Features such as cul-de-sacs and long blocks decrease connectivity while a grid-like network of streets increases connectivity. Increasing connectivity can improve access to places of interest and decrease travel distances, which in turn, encourages walking, biking, and other forms of active transport. Understanding how well-connected your community is can be beneficial to addressing barriers.

Examples of connectivity measures include block density, intersection density, and link-node ratio among many others. Additional measures and methods are described in the reference below. Measuring connectivity usually requires using a geographic information system or other spatial software.

Dill, Jennifer. (2004) Measuring network Connectivity for Bicycling and Walking. 83rd Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Washington, DC. Reconnecting America

H-GACs Connectivity Tool is another resource linking density and connectivity.

Walk ScoreTM
Walk Score has developed a scoring system that rates the walkability of any address from 0-100. It measures access to mixed land use, as calculated based on the variety and distance to five categories of commercial and frequently visited points of interest: educational, retail, food, entertainment, and recreational parks and gyms. 

Walk Score can be used at a high level to help compare built environments. It should be noted that, while Walk Score considers the number of destinations in an area, it does not take into account the quality of destinations, the aesthetics, or safety of the walking environment.
Regional Models and Tools

H-GAC Tools
Livable Centers, a program delivered by H-GAC, encourages communities to become accessible, walkable, mixed-use centers. The following tools can be used to model the impacts of similar changes in land use or transportation. They can be found on the Livable Centers website.

  • Blue Map: H-GACs Density/Connectivity Index
    An interactive map of density and connectivity measures for the area served by the H-GAC
  • Livable Centers Benefits Calculator
    A tool that estimates potential mode shift due to a livable centers program
  • Connectivity Tool
    A road planning tool that can be applied to transportation engineering needs
  • Fiscal Impact Model
    A model that estimates potential tax revenues for local governments from the inclusion of livable centers

Integrated Transport and Health Impact Model (ITHIM): Measuring health impacts of transportation mode shift
The Integrated Transport and Health Impact Model (ITHIM), is an advanced modeling tool that translates measures of transportation mode shift to health outcomes due to changes in air pollution, physical activity, and road traffic injuries. While detailed assumptions about population baseline travel modes are necessary to use the full ITHIM model, sections of the ITHIM model can be used with assumptions about changes in minutes of active transportation (walking and bicycling) to calculate physical activity related health outcomes. 
More information on the model and a contact for accessing the model can be found on ITHIM’s Summary Page.

National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Repository of Modeling Tools
NACCHO developed a catalogue of quantitative modeling tools that can be applied to HIAs. The tools can be used across a broad range of sectors and require varying degrees of experience. Click here to access the repository.

Additional tools related to making recommendations can be found on Built Environment Resources for Recommendations.