Measuring the Built Environment

Measuring BE

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 beneficial, 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 Assessment Tools

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 environment by collecting information such as land use, sidewalk availability, road volume, and access to parks. They can help identify specific issues or barriers to a safe and healthy community. Additionally, audits inform stakeholders on potential solutions to encourage safer access to street networks, improve access to green space and encourage a sense of community.

Infrastructure Assessment Tool (IAT)
The Harris County Public Health Built Environment Unit (HCPH BE) Unit developed the Infrastructure Assessment Tool (IAT), formerly the Environmental Scan Tool (EST). The IAT was adapted from validated, paper-based walkability audits and developed into an online platform to collect data on pedestrian, bicycle, and road infrastructure. The IAT collects data at the street segment level on pedestrian, bicycle, and drainage infrastructure, as well as GPS coordinates for certain street elements and traffic control devices (e.g., bus stops, stop signs, ADA ramps, pedestrian crossing signals). The IAT field data can then be linked to a geospatial streets dataset and layered with socioeconomic data to form baseline maps of the walking environment. Visit the IAT web map to view existing data. For additional information or inquire about using the tool, please email [email protected]

PhotoVoice is a resource that allows individuals to capture visual representations of their everyday lives so that researchers working with them may be able to gain understanding of opportunities and problems the community may face that previously might have been invisible (PhotoVoice). See HCPH guide for utilizing PhotoVoice. 

The BE Unit has access to drones that assist in rapid and comprehensive data gathering through the observation of hard-to-reach areas and examination of existing conditions from a new vantage point. Drone2mapTM will allow the BE Unit to transform raw drone-captured imagery into professional-quality 2D and 3D imagery products in ArcGIS®. (ESRI®

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.

ParkScoreTM & ParkServeTM
ParkScore and ParkServe work to create and improve neighborhood parks within a 10-minute walk from resident’s home. Their resources provide a comprehensive built environment data for people and their communities. ParkScore awards cities points based on four categories: acreage, investment, amenities and access. ParkServe is a tool used to determine location of future parks based on the greatest need.

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.
Retrieved from

Spatial Analytics

Spatial analytics allows researchers to map points of interest visualize how they relate to one another, assist in drawing conclusions, and provide insight on what potential actions (ESRI). The BE Unit utilizes ArcGIS to help decision-makers recognize current conditions, identify hidden patterns and denote possible opportunities.

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.

Cost-Impact Analytics

Health and Economic Impact Analysis (HEIA) Model
The Health and Economic Impact Analysis (HEIA) model examines changes to the built environment, such as improved walkability, changes to pedestrian safety, and the impacts on reduced morbidity and mortality. The model also examines the direct economic impacts by measuring the economic value of health impacts, mortality impacts, and real estate values as well as built environment costs and incorporating these valuations into a cost-effectiveness analysis. The cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) allows policy and decision makers to evaluate the economic merits of alternative scenarios for the built environment.

The HEIA model is a progression from the more traditional approach to a HIA model in that it allows all outcomes to be assessed by a common metric and incorporates not only health but also economic outcomes. HEIA relies on valuation based on evidence as documented in the literature and relies much less on subjective valuations of limited samples that many HIAs conducted to date are based on. The HEIA has the ability to provide confidence regarding the value of built environment recommended interventions. For additional information on tool, please email [email protected]

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

California Department of Public Health 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.