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Section 1. Overview of Changing the Physical Structure of the Community

Learn how to change the built and natural environments of the community to support health and well-being for all.


Color-toned image of Roosevelt Island park in NYC.


  • What do we mean by changing the physical structure of the community?

  • Why would you change the physical structure of the community?

  • When would you try to change the physical structure of the community?

  • Who should be involved in changing the physical structure of the community?

  • How do you change the physical structure of the community?


Atlanta, Georgia, is a city designed for automobile travel. An enormous multi-lane highway called the Downtown Connector divides the east and west sides of the city, creating a gulf that’s largely impassable for anyone not in a car. Originally, the highway separated midtown, on the east, from the Atlantic Steel Mill. Once the city’s largest employer, the mill was shut down in the 1980s.

When private developers bought the steel mill site, they faced both environmental and access problems. They planned a complex of residences, retail stores, hotels, restaurants, and office space, all of which would be inaccessible from the east except by car. Both the developers and the city found this unacceptable, and their solution was the 17th St. Bridge. A bright-yellow steel construction that spans the Downtown Connector, the bridge leads directly to Atlantic Station, the new development. The bridge not only provides direct driving access to Atlantic Station as well as public transportation, bike lanes, and wide sidewalks, with a canopy to shade walkers from the hot sun.

In building Atlantic Station, the developers removed thousands of tons of polluted soil, capped other deposits of metals and pollutants, and created what is widely recognized as a “green” development, one that puts as little strain as possible on the environment. It includes white roofs to reduce the heat island effect and air conditioner use, green space and native-species plantings, water conservation methods, and electric shuttle buses that serve the whole complex and carry people to the nearest subway station, minimizing automobile usage.

By changing the physical structure of the Atlantic Steel site, the Atlantic Station developers and their partners in the city, state, and federal governments addressed environmental concerns (the clean-up of a polluted site, conservation of water and fossil fuels), transportation needs (bridging the Downtown Connector, reduction of automobile use and traffic), and individual health (encouragement of walking and bicycling instead of driving), as well as economic development and housing needs.

This section introduces the concept of using changes in physical structure to create a healthy community. We’ll discuss what that means and follow-up with some different ways to achieve it.

What do we mean by changing the physical structure of the community?

While people are not the only animals that alter their environment – think of beavers or termites – we tend to do it in much more -drastic and permanent ways. New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, once wild places thinly populated by hunter-gatherers, farmers, and fishermen, now are covered in concrete and rise with buildings hundreds of meters tall. The residents of those cities have certainly changed the physical structure of their communities over the past centuries in countless ways. What kinds of physical changes can you make in your community that steer people’s behavior in healthy directions, improve their lives, and will continue to maintain a high quality of life for new generations?

Changing the physical structure of a community can refer to a broad range of activities. At the most basic level, it means building or installing or creating something new, altering something that already exists, or eliminating or destroying something in the community:

  • Buildings – residential, commercial, industrial, recreation and entertainment, institutional, educational, cultural, historic
  • Spaces around buildings – plantings, terraces, etc.
  • Roads, sidewalks, and walkways
  • Bridges
  • Parks and open space
  • Playgrounds
  • Squares, waterfronts, street markets, and other public spaces
  • Watercourses
  • Transportation
  • Signs and billboards
  • Streetlights
  • Trees, plantings, and gardens
  • Infrastructure – water and gas mains, electric and phone lines, sewers, sewage treatment facilities

Infrastructure is the organizational structure – often unseen – that makes a community operational. A city’s infrastructure includes - roads and bridges, power plants, water reservoirs, and other physical systems, as well as the people and processes that maintain them. The infrastructure of a small rural community is less complex , but no less vital.

  • Landfills and incinerators
  • Golf courses, cemeteries, sports fields, and other uses of open land

As you can see, the physical structure of a community includes elements of the built environment and the natural environment. In changing the physical structure of the community, we -often replace the natural environment with the built environment, and occasionally we do the opposite. We may clean up the site of a strip mine or landfill and turn it into a park, for instance, or plant trees where there was once a pile of rubble or a parking lot.

Exchanging an industrial site or building for grass and trees is an attempt to bring back the natural environment. In addition to the beautification and biophilia, there are also many added objective benefits such as reduced storm water run-off, storm water retention, providing habitat for insects, birds, and animals, removing contaminants from the soil that could leach into the groundwater, and more. Even though we can never exactly replicate the state of a site prior to human interference and development, we can restore the soil, improve biodiversity and functionality, and target specific benefits for our communities.

A change in one community’s physical structure will have effects in faraway places. When factories in the central U.S. built their smokestacks higher to avoid polluting their direct communities, the prevailing winds carried their pollution all the way to the East Coast, where it caused acid rain in New England. We can’t discuss changing the physical structure of the community without thinking about the global consequences of our actions for all living things.

Changes in physical structure can be relatively minor – the addition of curb cuts and crosswalks to make street-crossing easier for walkers and people with disabilities – or enormous – the construction of hundreds of units of environmentally-friendly mixed-income housing on a reclaimed industrial site, as in the case of Atlantic Station. They may be aimed at goals as different as simple physical comfort – planting shade trees to provide relief from summer heat, for example – and economic development.

As a community activist or advocate, you or your organization can make changes yourself, or you can help community members to do so. For larger changes, such as building commercial developments, you can collaborate with or influence those who might: the federal, state, and local governments; corporations; developers; etc. Through advocacy, public education, and the ballot, you can persuade policy makers, the media, and the public to back changes that will contribute to the development of a healthy community.

A key to thinking about changing the physical structure of the community is to approach it with the healthy community philosophy in mind. You have to consider the community as a whole, not as a series of parts. Every change you make has effects on the whole community, even if it’s aimed at a specific group or a specific issue, and changes should be discussed with that in mind. A seemingly small change can have far-reaching consequences.

So now that you’re thinking about changing the physical structure of your community, what are your goals? Why might you want to make those changes?

Why would you change the physical structure of the community?

  • Health promotion and disease prevention. There are many ways in which physical changes can enable healthier lifestyles, provide healthcare access to more citizens, remove environmental contaminants and toxins from our buildings, and more. Building hospitals or clinics in underserved areas and creating walking and bike paths to encourage heart-healthy activity are two examples. Forcing industries to stop polluting the air or water can also improve the health of the community.
  • Safety/security. Adding streetlights and fire hydrants not only make people feel safer but may save lives as well.
  • Increasing community pride and changing attitudes. Cleaning up an area or renovating buildings can make residents feel more pride in their community in turn resulting in a decrease in littering, vandalism, and overall crime rates, . People react strongly to their surroundings. If those surroundings are abandoned, boarded-up or scarcely populated buildings, people will tend to neglect and ­­abuse those spaces due to a lack of oversight, consequences, and pride. Help people change their surroundings and there’s a good possibility that their attitudes will change too.
  • Assuring access for people with disabilities. Ramps on buildings, curb cuts, and other accessibility options make a community easy to negotiate for everyone.
  • Transportation. Adding public transportation systems or routes will impact a community’s physical structure. Building shelters at stops on those routes is such a change which may also encourage ridership.
  • Conservation of natural resources. Something as seemingly insignificant as exchanging outdated plumbing fixtures in all public buildings for low-flow options or xeriscaping or native plantings in lieu of planting a blue grass turf in the desert will save huge amounts of water.

After one homeowner on a block in Albuquerque, New Mexico put in a native-plant garden on his front lawn, most of his neighbors followed. It often takes only a little effort to start a change in physical structure.

  • Economic development. Communities often build roads, sewer lines, bridges, etc. preemptively to attract a commercial project that will provide local jobs and tax income.
  • Restoration/expansion of green space. Tearing down buildings to add a green space, restoring a polluted site, or planting grass and trees on a vacant lot are ways of restoring or expanding green space.
  • Environmental protection. Building a sewage treatment plant is one way for a community to reduce water pollution and protect its natural environment. Volunteers cleaning up and monitoring the water quality of a stream could be equally significant for health of the community.
  • Meeting community members’ housing needs may require building more housing or dedicating or modifying existing housing to meet particular needs (affordable housing, housing for people with disabilities).
  • Expanding opportunity for low-income residents. Quality development in low-income or fringe neighborhoods will bring jobs to those areas. Increasing transportation access to and from low-income neighborhoods will also expand opportunities to residents by providing them a means to easily get to areas with more or better paying jobs.
  • Historic preservation. Repurposing a historic building that might otherwise be torn down preserves resources as well as the character and history of the community.
  • Encouragement of arts and culture. Painting a mural on an easily-visible wall or promoting arts related events and festivals stresses the importance of art and culture and increases community awareness.
  • Providing aesthetic experience. Beautification enhances everyday life. Scattering wildflower seeds on a newly-cleaned-up vacant lot, for instance, can change the way residents see their neighborhood.
  • Recreation. Painting a basketball court and installing hoops on a parking lot can create a recreational opportunity for large numbers of youth.
  • Physical comfort. Installing benches in public spaces encourages the use of outdoor space and provides places for people to rest and talk.
  • Encouraging social interaction. Creating inviting, people-friendly spaces – pocket parks or pedestrian malls, for instance – leads to more social interaction and a more dynamic street life.
  • Addressing social concerns such as diversity or racial harmony. Building a community center on the border between mutually hostile ethnic neighborhoods, or in easily accessible neutral territory, might bring members of these groups together in a positive way.

Something like this requires careful oversight and a thoughtful approach by community center staff. It’s a volatile issue and not one to be taken on casually.

  • Equity. Studies by the World Health Organization have shown that the greater the gap between rich and poor in a country, the shorter its inhabitants’ life expectancy. (This may be one reason why the United States, the most affluent society in the world, ranks only 29th in life expectancy.) By encouraging economic development and the location of such facilities as sports stadiums and government buildings in low-income neighborhoods, a community can foster opportunity and increase equity.

As you have undoubtedly noticed, many aspects of changing the physical structure of the community are intertwined. It is hard to define exactly where the dividing lines are among expanding opportunity for the poor, meeting housing needs, and fostering greater equity, for instance, or between encouraging the arts and culture and providing an aesthetic experience for community members.

There are essentially six fundamental reasons for altering the physical structure of a community: changing the social climate; changing the economic situation; changing the political situation (which overlaps with both the social and economic); addressing health and safety; addressing psychological factors (changing community members’ and others’ behavior and attitudes – again, overlapping with most of the other reasons); and preservation (the environment, architecture, culture, history, etc.).

You could also consider the reasons above in light of the nine prerequisites for a healthy community laid out in the Ottawa Charter, drafted by a World Health Organization conference in 1986:

  • Peace
  • Shelter
  • Education
  • Food
  • Income
  • A stable ecosystem
  • Sustainable resources
  • Social justice
  • Equity

When would you try to change the physical structure of the community?

Changes to the physical structure of a community can readily occur whenever there’s opportunity and a need.

  • When a new development or project is starting. Opportunity may knock in the form of a public or private residential, commercial, or industrial development, a neighborhood renewal project, a building renovation, or any other construction project that impacts a community. You may be able to convince the policy maker, developer, or municipality to include mixed-income housing, bike paths, green space, environmentally-responsible design, etc. in order to improve your community’s health and vitality.
  • When funding is available for a project. This may be a perfect time to push for those extra street lights or to add plantings to a blighted landscape.
  • When a particular issue arises to the public consciousness. Issues, like products, seem to have popularity cycles. An author or a news medium notices that there’s a problem and publicizes it. With fresh awareness and attention, people are inspired to make a change. This circumstance creates an opportunity to make the voice of the community heard, or to mobilize the community to address the issue on its own. The result could be a neighborhood clean-up, a promise to build or improve schools in certain neighborhoods, or a full-fledged effort to create enough affordable housing to eliminate homelessness.
  • When someone is negotiating with the community about changes. The community may have leverage to strike a bargain that maximizes the benefits that it can get from the other party. If a developer is about to build on a piece of open space, perhaps she can be pressured to set aside part of the development for community recreational use, or to provide the community other amenities within the development
  • When a problem has become too serious to ignore. When nighttime assaults have grown all too common it’s time to double the number of streetlights and install police call boxes. When the factory has polluted the river again it is forced to change how it handles the disposal of toxic waste and is required to clean up and be held accountable for the mess it has made and any damage it has caused. Sometimes projects like these can be accomplished by community resources alone and other times they take political or other kinds of outside intervention. In either case, the call to action is clear.

Who should be involved in changing the physical structure of the community?

Changes of any kind are typically enacted by community members or policy makers though there are often other players involved.

  • Community members and grassroots movements. Changes ideal come from within the community. This is not only more likely to address the issue at hand more effectively, but it also gives the community ownership of the changes. This may require community members to physically make the changes, or it may mean advocating for the changes to happen.

A community activist in Boston managed to stop the vandalizing of a playground by enlisting the vandals to fix it up. Without ever accusing anyone, she organized a meeting at which the teens developed a plan for the playground, which included a mural, new basketball hoops, a clean-up, and equipment for younger children. With the activist’s help, the group obtained a grant from the city and did the work. Because of their involvement and sense of pride in the project, they respected it kept it clean.

  • Policy makers and public officials. While they don’t do the physical labor, these are often the people who make physical changes possible. Legislators, for instance, can appropriate funds for specific projects. The Department of Public Works can decide to spend money on a particular change. Because they often control the distribution of money in a community, these are, in many cases, the people you have to convince.

The distribution of money is not necessarily the only issue here. Sometimes, the changes you’re seeking may fall under federal or state regulations, in which case the regulating agency may be responsible for implementing or enforcing the necessary changes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, can require a corporation to clean up a polluted site it has abandoned, or to fulfill environmental conditions before it can build.

  • The business community. Community businesses are often instrumental in making changes simply by helping to fund plantings, trash baskets, signs, or other beautification projects that increase usability and function. Many business owners care deeply about their community and are eager to improve it.
  • Corporations. Persuading a large corporation to locate offices or a facility in a community can bring jobs, tax revenues, and other opportunities. Corporations also often fund projects and otherwise participate in fostering the health of the communities where they do business.​
  • Developers. Developers can have a positive effect on a community. In partnership, they may become real supporters of the things you’re concerned with in your community, such as environmentally-friendly development or affordable housing. It can be a win-win situation, with the community getting changes it needs and the developer getting project approval and lower taxes because he’s providing those changes.

How do you change the physical structure of the community?

What are we actually referring to when we talk about changing the physical structure of the community? There are clearly many possibilities, each with its own conditions and its own consequences. Let’s examine some of the specific changes that can be made.

What follows is by no means a complete list of possibilities. In fact, it barely scratches the surface. Furthermore, since each community is unique, most will have possibilities that don’t even exist in others. In thinking about your own community, what feels wrong to you or bothers you when you see it? What do you see others reacting to negatively? Vacant buildings? Illegal dumping? Homelessness? We’ve been discussing the fact that the physical environment affects community residents a great deal. It can make them depressed or energized or aggressive or proud to be part of the place they live. Below are a few examples of the ways in which the physical environment can be changed to improve people’s lives. In your community, there are hundreds of others; you can find them if you look.


Most communities contain various types of buildings, and changes to each have their own consequences. In general, communities can try to assure, either through regulations or persuasion, that new buildings, restorations, and renovations are environmentally friendly (i.e., that they are designed to conserve energy and water, to minimize waste, to avoid the use of toxic materials in their construction and interiors, and to preserve as much open space as possible), that they encourage human interaction and street life (by locating benches and walkways in strategic places, for example, and/or by incorporating storefronts where they meet the street), and that their design and construction make them safe and comfortable (earthquake-proof, for instance, or simply having operable windows).

Housing and residential development. Where, and under what conditions, people live in a community can influence their behavior, their health, their attitudes, and their economic situation. There are several ways in which changes involving housing can improve conditions:

  • Building affordable housing. Providing decent housing that’s either inexpensive enough for low-income people to rent or own, or subsidized so that they can live there, is imperative

Affordable housing is often sub-par in quality and location. Living in isolated areas far from shopping and other services, potentially hazardous to health, and possibly even dangerous will definitely have an impact on the quality of an individual’s life. Decent housing means freedom from daily fear of assault, the ability to conduct daily business, and a reasonable certainty that the roof won’t leak.

One way to provide decent affordable housing is to make it part of a mixed-income development that includes subsidized, market-rate, and upscale units all in the same place. Such a development was built in Chicago to partially replace the housing lost when the notoriously dangerous and poorly maintained Cabrini-Green housing project was torn down. Residents of Cabrini-Green who moved to the new development received training on keeping up their apartments, conflict resolution, and other skills that would help them live in a comfortable middle-class environment rather than a war zone.

  • Building housing using “sweat equity.” Sweat equity means paying for part of your new housing by supplying the labor to build it. Single and multi-family dwellings of various kinds, including detached houses, cooperative apartments, and condominiums have been built with the help of volunteers. With a lower cost of labor, the housing is able to be sold at a lower price, enabling low- and moderate-income families to own homes they otherwise couldn’t.
  • Rehabilitating derelict houses or repurposing other buildings for housing. Abandoned houses and commercial buildings may be structurally sound, but need a great deal of work in order to become livable. They might be sweat equity projects as described above, bought cheaply and restored by potential owners or by an organization, or taken for taxes by the municipality and restored with grant money.
  • Adding a certain percentage of housing that’s affordable, ADA compliant, and environmentally responsible can be an incentivizing condition of permitting for a large housing development (or requiring some such condition by law).

Commercial buildings and development. The location, appearance, and nature of commercial businesses can add to (or detract from) the quality of community life. Furthermore, commercial development brings jobs, often entry-level jobs that people need to get started or back on their feet. Building or establishing neighborhood stores in street-level storefronts and cafes with outdoor seating can encourage street life and neighborhood pride.

In a low-income or moderate-income neighborhood, the stores and cafes should sell things that are priced reasonably and that local people want. If they do not, they may signify the beginning of a neighborhood sea-change that will force current residents out, which will end up creating more problems to solve.

Industrial buildings and development. Where industries are located, especially in relation to housing, how factories are built and how much they pollute, and the amount of noise and traffic they produce are all influential in determining the health of a community and its quality of life. And again, industries bring jobs – often high-paying jobs. The ability of people to get to the sites of those jobs can determine the economic health of a community.

Studies show that a large majority of industries that have negative health effects on nearby residents are located in low-income areas. This situation is no more acceptable than if those industries were located in high-income areas or next door to government buildings. In addition to requiring that industry clean up its operations, communities can look specifically for clean industry, refuse siting permits to plants whose location will pose health hazards to any residents, and negotiate with industries about choosing sites where they will least impact the health of the community.

Office and government buildings. The design and location of these buildings has health and social consequences both for those who work in them and for those who must use them as clients, customers, or constituents.

Cultural centers. Theaters, museums, concert halls, auditoriums, and libraries add greatly to the life of the community. Their construction, design, and location can send clear messages about the community’s attitudes toward them and toward various populations.

Recreation and entertainment complexes. Much the same as for cultural centers, the availability of and access to movie theaters, sports stadiums, amusement parks, and the like can both improve residents’ lives and create opportunities for building community.

Historic buildings and monuments. How well a community decides to preserve and maintain its historic buildings and monuments makes a statement about its attitude toward its own history. It may also sometimes be most meaningful to tear down statues that no longer represent the values of a community, such as the controversial removal of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, VA. As part of the 2017 Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movement, this political unrest has resulted in bloody riots, lawsuits and overt racism that will surely define this time in history.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, although the government had very little money, Czech President, Vaclav Havel chose to spend millions to restore the Obecni Dum, or Municipal House, in the center of Prague. The early 20th Century building, designed and with artwork and architectural touches by virtually every major Czech artist of the time, had always been a focus of national pride, but had been left in poor repair by the Communist government. Its restoration, despite the cost, was widely approved, and it became a symbol of the rebirth of the Czech Republic.

Educational facilities. The number, appearance, condition, and influence of schools, colleges, and universities can shape assumptions and expectations about education. The architectural design of schools can also greatly influence the shape of the learning that goes on within them. Separate classrooms off a long corridor imply a different kind of educational style than a school with many common spaces where learning takes place. A school with an outdoor campus allows for different experiences than one hemmed in by other buildings. A school housed within another facility such as a museum or an office building may be able to offer students more varied resources than a stand-alone school could.

Changes in buildings, or the encouragement of new buildings, have to be considered carefully. The urban renewal movement of the 1950’s and ‘60’s was meant to make cities more livable: in fact, it often had the opposite effect. Many low- and moderate-income people were forced out of homes they had struggled to own, and out of neighborhoods that, in some cases, their families had occupied for generations. Without the resources to stay in the now-expensive areas they had lived in, they either moved away or ended up in far less desirable situations.

The sterile office towers and upscale high-rise residences that replaced row housing and neighborhood businesses nearly killed many inner cities in the late 20th Century, and turned what had been neighborhoods teeming with life into canyons of empty streets lined by towering, featureless fortresses with few windows and guards at the doors. A majority of urban renewal projects still stand as reminders of why planning should be participatory and involve all those who’ll be affected by its results.

Public spaces

Where these spaces are, how well they’re maintained, how welcoming they are to the public, how easy they are to get to, how safe, and how often they are used are all relevant to building a healthy community.

Public spaces include the areas around buildings, parks, squares, outdoor malls, waterfronts, etc.

Spaces around buildings. Plantings, decorative stone- or brickwork, sculpture, benches, fountains, etc. outside office and commercial buildings make the street more attractive and the buildings themselves more inviting.

Parks. Urban parks can sometimes feel unsafe. They can also be inviting spaces that are filled with people and activity and offer respite from the concrete and noise of the city.

Pedestrian areas. Designating certain streets as pedestrians-only can change the character of an area, as well as lead to more business activity, improve opportunities for diversity, and greater improve public safety.

The Stroget in Copenhagen, Denmark is a wide pedestrian street that runs for several blocks through the center of downtown, along which are located some of the best stores and restaurants in the city, as well as outdoor food vendors, street performers, and a market in spring and summer. It is always crowded and lively, even in the dark Danish winter, with all types of people and has become a beacon to tourists who want to have an authentic Danish experience.

Waterfronts. A number of American communities (from such large cities as San Francisco and New York to small towns along rivers and lakes) have made their waterfronts into pleasant pedestrian spaces where residents come to cool off in summer, attend a concert, eat street food and browse local artisan vendor displays. Once largely occupied by working boats, industry, and warehouses, as well as seedy bars the waterfronts have transformed from areas of high crime to hip, safe and coveted areas for development.

Generally, waterfront development has veered strongly toward the top of the economic scale. It generates income for the community, but is not always friendly to low- and moderate-income people. Waterfront parks and trails and cultural or government buildings are far more conducive to use by a broad range of people than are expensive hotels and high-end shops and restaurants.

Neighborhood spaces. The safety of people walking the streets, particularly at night, can be a major issue in many cities. Some changes in physical structure can help reduce violent crime – assault, armed robbery, rape, murder – by improving street lighting, integrating police call boxes, and rehabilitating abandoned buildings. Encouraging more people to be on the street at night by improving safety and adding businesses, restaurants, sports facilities, etc., in high-crime neighborhoods also may reduce violence.

Vacant lots. More than one social movement has started with a neighborhood clean-up. Vacant urban lots often attract trash. A citizen-led clean-up and maintenance program that turns an unused lot into a pocket park or a safe, clean place for kids to play can change the attitude of a neighborhood and start residents on a path of renewal.

Public art. Works of art, whether in the form of a mural painted by local youth or a monumental sculpture by a world-famous artist, can bolster community pride, add beauty and interest to an area, and make a statement about both the philosophy of the artist and the community. When the women striking for higher pay and humane working conditions in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 demanded bread and roses, they meant that they needed not only enough money to live, but beauty and dignity in their lives. Public art can enhance both.

A mural in an Black neighborhood in Philadelphia, for example, depicts heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. The mural elicits pride and honor by celebrating key people of the Movement, whose actions brought about radical change and dramatically improved the lives of people of color.

Roads and other infrastructure

City streets. Besides keeping violence off the streets, there are many simple means to improve safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers on the road, including more traffic lights, crosswalks, designated bike lanes, and better signage.

Placement and maintenance of roads and train tracks. The Downtown Connector in Atlanta has been mentioned as a road that effectively divides the city. Many cities, and even smaller towns, have something similar – a highway or railway that cuts one part of the city off from another. Changing the placement of these roads and tracks, building pedestrian or pedestrian-friendly bridges or underpasses over or under them, and planning new roads carefully can avoid splitting communities or help to bring them back together.

The placement of rural roads may also be an issue. Avoiding building roads through unspoiled areas may help to keep them unspoiled. Keeping the rural character of a small-town road may be important to maintaining the nature and history of the community. The interruption of wildlife routes may also be a concern.

A plan to repave and straighten a notoriously rough but well-used rural road in a small New England town met with enormous local opposition. The plan involved doubling the width of the road which would have eliminated many large old trees, as well as centuries-old stone walls on either side. Although everyone wanted the road repaved, many residents felt that sacrificing the trees and walls and the look of the road were too high a price to pay, and the plan was defeated in Town Meeting.

Another concern is whether all neighborhoods or communities are treated equally in the matter of road maintenance. In the American South, up to the late 20th Century, it was common to see well-paved roads with sidewalks and sewers in the more affluent White section of a town, and dirt streets with water running in roadside ditches in the lower-income Black neighborhoods. A race- or class-based system of road maintenance is not unknown in other parts of the U.S. (and the rest of the world) as well. Changing the physical structure in this case is a matter of equal rights, and involves changing attitudes as well as road service schedules.

Public transportation. The construction or establishment of public transportation lines can mean less congestion and air pollution, energy conservation, safer streets, and better health for community residents who walk or bike to a bus or train stop, rather than driving door to door. As with roads, the question of fairness has to be considered here: public transportation routes should be, to the extent possible, distributed among all neighborhoods and areas of the community, so that everyone has relatively equal access to them.

The creation of walking and bike trails. Walking and bike trails, cross-country ski trails, and roller blading and jogging paths encourage exercise, which in turn promotes good health, and also afford opportunities for social interaction and relaxation. They might, as they do in San Francisco, for example, also provide scenic vistas, and/or pass by points of cultural, historic, or natural interest.

Walking and bike trails actually can take you almost anywhere in some cities, thus minimizing pollution and conserving energy resources.

Public sports facilities, such as park and beach volleyball courts, may also serve the function of encouraging healthy physical activity.

Electricity, telephone, water, and gas lines. Improving old lines – replacing 100-year-old lead water pipe, repairing or replacing dangerously leaky gas pipe, adding fiber optic cable – can have major consequences for community health and safety, as well as providing access to technology to underserved communities or neighborhoods. Burying lines can improve the appearance of a community and eliminate many service problems.

The natural environment

Open space preservation. Open space preservation prevents, rather than creates, physical change in the community. Many communities – typically smaller ones, but some large cities as well – contain large areas of open space, or even wilderness, within their boundaries. These areas can provide recreation, fresh air, and appreciation for the natural world In an era of urban sprawl, cities tend to spread horizontally consuming the land around them, putting even unique landscapes of great natural beauty or value at risk.

The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, spent years negotiating with developers to keep a particularly beautiful area of dry upland from being developed with new luxury residences. Through a sale-and-trade agreement negotiated by the City Attorney, several tracts of land in this area, the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, were preserved from development, and are now available to all for hiking, picnicking, and enjoyment of nature.

Reclamation of environmentally damaged areas. Some industries change a natural site, exploiting it for resources, and then leave it severely damaged or ruined when it’s no longer useful. Quarries, mines – particularly strip mines – oil and gas fields, and timber operations, among others, all have the potential to leave behind torn-up landscapes, heaps of waste material (some of which may be toxic), abandoned buildings, and rusting machinery. Many in these industries make – or can be required to make, by regulations or legislation – a good-faith effort to clean up after themselves by restoring landscapes (replanting trees, filling pits and planting grass, etc.), trucking out and properly disposing of waste material, and clearing the site of any evidence of their work. When that doesn’t happen, either because the damage was done long ago or because there are no laws or regulations to mandate restoration, the community may have to step in to do the job.

Prevention of pollution. This may involve cleaning the environment of pollutants before they enter the ecosystem such as with the construction of a sewage treatment plant or it may entail trapping pollutants before they are released into the environment, such as with chimney filters or outflow pipes from industrial plants. It may also mean careful consideration of siting industrial plants, and about whether potential polluters will be allowed to build or locate in the community at all.

Another aspect of pollution prevention occurs at the residential level rather than with industrial operations. The repair of leaking or blocked sewer lines, for instance, may be necessary to prevent sewage leaking into the ground and eventually fouling water or bubbling to the surface. In rural areas, the placement and construction of septic systems is imperative.

Correction of pollution problems. Often it is difficult to draw the line between prevention and correction of pollution problems. Physical changes aimed at cleaning up existing pollution might, yet again, involve the construction of a treatment plant, or the installation of filters in chimneys and outflow pipes. It could force the excavation of a site where toxic materials were dumped, or the clean-up of a whole neighborhood, as in the case of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York. It could even make it necessary to tear down an industrial plant or a number of houses.

Identifying opportunities for improving your community through changes to the physical environment is the first step in creating a healthier and more sustainable community. And once you have started down the path of improvement, remember that all physical structures require maintenance – buildings have to be kept up, lots kept clean, streetlight bulbs changed, roads and trails maintained, murals retouched in order to sustain a healthier community and a better life for its members.

In Summary

The built and natural environments together make up the physical structure of a community. By changing that structure, you may be able to change community members’ attitudes, behaviors, prospects for health and well-being, economic opportunity, social interactions, and quality of life. It’s one of the ways to approach creating a healthy community.


We encourage the reproduction of this material, but ask that you credit the Community Tool Box.

Phil Rabinowitz
Andrea Glinn, Editor

Online Resources

An abandoned rail line, the 606, in Chicago has been transformed into a multi-use recreational trail that promotes healthy physical activity, a sense of community, public art, and alternative transportation.

New York City Active Design Guidelines outlines design methods for promoting physical activity and health through the built environment.

Active Living story bank – examples of communities changing the built environment to encourage physical activity and health.

Atlanta Station (Atlantic Steel Site Redevelopment Project) is a prime example of taking a damaged piece of land and transforming it into a community hub, and is a smart, environmentally driven development that reduces vehicular use, rainwater runoff, and pollution.

Bridging The Gap (BTG) connects environment, economy, and community in Kansas City by providing both education and volunteer action that reduces litter, promotes recycling, plants trees, protects native ecosystems, and encourages energy efficiency and waste reduction in businesses.

Boys Grow mentors Kansas City urban youth through agricultural entrepreneurship. The program instills pride, discipline, and business understanding in the participants and teaches good stewardship, improving the land and providing fresh, healthy foods in urban areas.

CDI to the United Nations: Sustainable Development through Cooperative Development from Cooperative Development Institute explains how cooperatives help achieve sustainability and peace in the world.

Development without Displacement Toolkit provides practical lessons, frameworks, and tools that advance equitable development without displacing residents and small businesses. 

The Fair Housing Act Design Manual provides a framework for constructing housing that meet the Fair Housing Act guidelines, protecting people from discrimination when renting, buying, or seeking financing for housing.

Best Green Stormwater Infrastructure management practices for airports.

Habitat for Humanity volunteers work to ensure everyone has a decent place to live.

Healthy Neighborhoods Study, based in Boston, is the largest resident-driven, participatory action research project in the US about neighborhood change processes, like gentrification and climate change, and their impact on health.

Historic Preservation designation of buildings through the National Parks Service protects important buildings in our communities and provide oversight when renovation and restoration occur. An NPS designation can save the life of a building.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a rating system to evaluate the environmental performance of a building and has laid the foundation for green building design in the United States.

The Living Building Challenge is the most rigorous performance standard for measuring a building’s environmental impact. The goal of these buildings is to improve the environment, to give more than they take, and to have a positive impact on people and the environment, not just to minimize harm to it.

Make It Right Foundation builds safe, sustainable homes, buildings, and communities for people in need, often following an unprecedented natural disaster or a long underserved population.

Mid-America Regional Council is a nonprofit association working with the community and government of the Kansas City region to advance social, economic and environmental progress. 

National Institute of Justice Research article on if disorder and urban decay leads to crime in a neighborhood.

Native plants are vital in restoring and preserving biodiversity, conserving water, and creating healthy and beautiful places for people to enjoy.

Nurturing Healthy Neighborhoods: Communities Affect Health is a resource from the National Institutes of Health about how the environment around us influences our health.

Passive House Institute US is a nonprofit whose mission is to develop and promote passive building standards in the United States for energy and resource conservation as well as environmental impact.

Best storm water management practices examples on the PennState Brandywine campus.

Permaculture is an ecological design system that encompasses how we live, the type of houses we build, how we farm, and the creation of ethical communities.

A Police station designed by a progressive architect to be a community center and hub.

Sick Building Syndrome is a direct health response to spending time in a poorly ventilated, polluted, and/or contaminant laden building. Avoiding creating such spaces in the built environment is imperative to the health of a community and addressing problems in existing buildings will require changes to the built environment.

The WELL Building Standard provides design guidelines for the built environment to improve human health and well-being, and works in concert with LEED building certification.

World Health Organization Conference on Health Promotion in 1986 outlines the prerequisites for health.

Xeriscaping rather than grass yards in drought affected areas such as the desert saves resources and reduces pollution.

Print Resources

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Maxfield, Michael G., Babbie, Earl R. Research Methods for Criminal Justice and Criminology. California: Wadsworth Publishing, 2014, p. 133.