Built environment

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The term built environment refers to the man-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity. Features of the layout or design of the built environment have important influences on the activities that take place within it. In landscape architecture, the built environment is identified as opposed to the natural environment, with the recognition that places like large public parks may have the look, feel, and nourishing quality of natural surroundings while being artificial and "built," thus blurring the line between the two. The term "artifice" in the sense of something made up, constructed, or contrived may also be a synonym, although not necessarily in its connotations of deception or trickery. The decorative art forms known as "tromp l'oeil" purposely straddle that distinction.

Other concepts of the built environment

The term built environment is also used to describe the interdisciplinary field of study which addresses the design, management and use of these man-made surroundings and their relationship to the human activities which take place within them. The design of the built environment crosses the traditional professional boundaries between urban planners, traffic engineers, zoning authorities, architects, interior designers, and industrial designers.

In urban planning, the term connotes the idea that a large percentage of the human environment is manmade, and those artificial surroundings are so extensive and cohesive that they function as organisms in the consumption of resources, disposal of wastes, and facilitation of productive enterprise within their bounds.

Public Health

A particularly important influence of the built environment on human activity is its impact on public health.

During the industrial revolution, for example, large numbers of people moved into large cities in search of work at factories. Living conditions became overcrowded in many working neighborhoods and sanitation was poor, so diseases spread quickly. What is more, factory workers frequently lived very near to the factories themselves and in contact with the chemical waste and pollution that they produced. Modern urban planning addressed these ills through installation comprehensive sewer systems, improvement of building design, and implementation of ordinances that designated residential and industrial zones and established limits on occupancy.[1]


Dumbbell Tenaments

Ironically, some of the adjustments that were made to the built environment to address public health concerns in the early twentieth century are now blamed for causing other public health concerns in modern cities.

Suburbs as 'Healthier' Than Cities

Based on the pollution, lack of sanitation, general destruction of nature and other characteristics of the industrial city, areas outside city centers, particularly those featuring greater distances between buildings, abundant trees and grass, creeks, rivers and flowing water and other natural resources have long been considered healthier as built environments than the dense environments of inner industrial cities. From the earliest times, the wealthy and others who were able often fled cities for the countryside during epidemics of contagious diseases.

In modern suburban areas, the distance in between home and workplace and use of automobiles to commute to work has meant that modern workers contribute much more pollution to their environments in the form of automobile exhaust, which has led to a rise in the incidence of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Long commutes have also contributed to a more sedentary life style, which is implicated in many of the chronic diseases that now worry public health officials. Researchers are now calling for a new shift in thinking about the design of the built environment.


  1. Wendy Collins Perdue, Lesley A. Stone and Lawrence O. Gostin. 2003. The Built Environment and Its Relationship to the Public’s Health: The Legal Framework. American Journal of Public Health 93(9):1390-1394.