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A novel tool for assessing and summarizing the built environment

Gretchen L Kroeger1, Lynne Messer2, Sharon E Edwards3 and Marie Lynn Miranda34*

Author Affiliations

1 Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Box 90328, Durham, NC, 27708, USA

2 School of Community Health, College of Urban and Public Affairs, Portland State University, PO Box 751, Portland, OR, 97207, USA

3 Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, 2046 Dana Building, 440 Church St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA

4 Department of Pediatrics, University of Michigan, 2046 Dana Building, 440 Church St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA

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International Journal of Health Geographics 2012, 11:46  doi:10.1186/1476-072X-11-46

Published: 17 October 2012



A growing corpus of research focuses on assessing the quality of the local built environment and also examining the relationship between the built environment and health outcomes and indicators in communities. However, there is a lack of research presenting a highly resolved, systematic, and comprehensive spatial approach to assessing the built environment over a large geographic extent. In this paper, we contribute to the built environment literature by describing a tool used to assess the residential built environment at the tax parcel-level, as well as a methodology for summarizing the data into meaningful indices for linkages with health data.


A database containing residential built environment variables was constructed using the existing body of literature, as well as input from local community partners. During the summer of 2008, a team of trained assessors conducted an on-foot, curb-side assessment of approximately 17,000 tax parcels in Durham, North Carolina, evaluating the built environment on over 80 variables using handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. The exercise was repeated again in the summer of 2011 over a larger geographic area that included roughly 30,700 tax parcels; summary data presented here are from the 2008 assessment.


Built environment data were combined with Durham crime data and tax assessor data in order to construct seven built environment indices. These indices were aggregated to US Census blocks, as well as to primary adjacency communities (PACs) and secondary adjacency communities (SACs) which better described the larger neighborhood context experienced by local residents. Results were disseminated to community members, public health professionals, and government officials.


The assessment tool described is both easily-replicable and comprehensive in design. Furthermore, our construction of PACs and SACs introduces a novel concept to approximate varying scales of community and describe the built environment at those scales. Our collaboration with community partners at all stages of the tool development, data collection, and dissemination of results provides a model for engaging the community in an active research program.