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Healthy Places Terminology

This website is archived for historical purposes and is no longer being maintained or updated.

The Healthy Community Design Initiative, also known as the Built Environment and Health Initiative, is no longer a funded program and the information on this website is not being reviewed and updated on a regular basis.


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More terminology is available in the fact sheet Public Health Terms for Planners & Planning Terms for Public Health Professionals [PDF – 140 KB]. The fact sheet was prepared by the American Planning Association and the National Association of County and City Health Officials with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A term that describes the usability of a product or service by people with disabilities.
active living community
A community designed to provide opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines. By encouraging people to be more active, active living communities may improve health by lowering people’s risk for health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
adaptive reuse
Adapting buildings for new uses while retaining their historic features.
aging in place
The ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.
agricultural urbanism
An approach to integrating growth and development with preserving agricultural resources and enhancing elements of the food system.
air pollution
One or more chemicals, substances, or physical conditions (such as excess heat or noise) in high enough concentrations in the air to harm humans, other animals, vegetation, or materials.
bicycle friendly

Possessing urban design factors that help make an area that caters to the needs of bicyclists. Factors include

  • Public facilities such as bicycle racks on streets or by public buildings
  • Regulations that allow riders to take bicycles on board buses, trains, etc.
  • Accessibility such as the position of bicycle paths relative to roads, quality of the terrain, presence of curb cuts, etc.
  • Safety features such as lighting, security measures, and protection from on-road vehicles
  • Aesthetics of bicycle paths and their surrounding areas
Abandoned or underused portions of land occupied by vacant businesses or closed military structures, located in formerly industrial or urban areas. Redevelopment may be complicated by real or perceived contamination of the site.
buffer zone
A natural, undisturbed strip or “green belt” surrounding a development or land disturbance activity or bordering a stream or permanent water body.
built environment
The buildings, roads, utilities, homes, fixtures, parks and all other man-made entities that form the physical characteristics of a community.
A specific group of people, often living in a defined geographic area, who share a common culture, values, and norms and who are arranged in a social structure according to relationships the community has developed over a period of time. The term “community” encompasses worksites, schools, and health care sites.
complete streets
Streets that are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.
The ease of travel between two points. The degree to which streets or areas are interconnected and easily accessible to one another. An example of high connectivity would be a dense grid pattern in a downtown area.
curb cuts
A space within a curb that is cut away to create a flat area convenient for bicycles, wheelchairs, and strollers.

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The compactness of development. Common measures of density include population per acre or square mile and dwelling units per acre.
When long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes.
Urbanized areas that specialize in a particular activity such as airports and industrial areas.
The skin of a building-including the windows, doors, walls, foundation, basement slab, ceilings, roof and insulation – that separates the interior of a building from the outdoor environment.
embodied energy
How much energy was required to extract, process, package, transport, install, and recycle or dispose of materials that make up a building’s construction.
energy smart
Meeting your energy needs cost effectively and with the least impact on the environment.
Everything external to people — everything other than behavior and genetics. All conditions that affect people during their lifetimes.
An acronym for Floor Area Ratio. FAR expresses the relationship between the amount of useable floor area permitted in a building (or buildings) and the area of the lot on which the building stands.It is obtained by dividing the gross floor area of a building by the total area of the lot.
Land area taken up by a building.
form-based codes
A method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form. Form-based codes create a predictable public realm by controlling physical form primarily, with a lesser focus on land use, through city or county regulations. From-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.
fossil fuels
Carbon-rich deposits in the earth, such as petroleum (oil), coal, or natural gas, derived from the remains of ancient plants and animals and used for fuel.
The transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses. Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics (e.g., racial/ethnic composition and household income) by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.
geographic information systems (GIS)
Computer-based systems capable of integrating different types of geological and demographic information. By creating maps, one may depict an area’s natural and human-made resources, including soil types, population densities, land uses, transportation corridors, waterways, street patterns, mass-transit patterns, sewer lines, water sources, and utility lines.
geothermal energy
Heat that comes from the Earth’s interior.
global warming
The progressive gradual rise of the Earth’s surface temperature thought to be caused by the greenhouse effect. Global warming may be responsible for changes in global climate patterns.
greenhouse effect
The process whereby a portion of the solar heat and energy traveling through the Earth’s atmosphere toward the earth’s surface is prevented from radiating back into outer space by a variety of gases (e.g., water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases).
green design
Using natural products and safer procedures to protect people’s health and well-being.
green space
Open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation.
A state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.
healthy places
Communities that are developed, designed and built to promote good health.
health impact assessment (HIA)
A combination of procedures, methods, and tools by which a policy, program, or project may be judged as to its potential effects on the health of a population, and the distribution of those effects within the population. HIAs an be used to evaluate objectively the potential health effects of a project or policy before it is built or implemented. It can provide recommendations to increase positive health outcomes and minimize adverse health outcomes. A major benefit of the HIA process is that it brings public health issues to the attention of persons who make decisions about areas that fall outside of traditional public health arenas, such as transportation or land use.
healthy community
A community that is continuously creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing to their maximum potential.

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Incapable of permeating, absorbing, or diffusing water, thereby creating runoff.
inclusionary zoning policies
Inclusionary zoning is a promising policy strategy that allocates a percentage of the rental or for-sale units in housing developments for low- and moderate-income residents. In return, developers receive cost offsets as compensation for their affordable housing contributions.
infill development
Development that takes place within existing communities, making maximum use of the existing infrastructure instead of building on previously undeveloped land.
Supportive services such as water and sewer lines, roads, transit lines, schools, and other public services.
An acronym for The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System™. LEED is a voluntary, consensus-based standard to support and certify successful green building design, construction and operations.
location-efficient mortgages
Competitive rates and low down payments to those who want to live in “location-efficient communities” that are convenient to resources and reduce the need to drive.
low-impact development (LID)
An approach to land development (or re-development) that works with nature to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible. LID employs principles such as preserving and recreating natural landscape features, minimizing effective imperviousness to create functional and appealing site drainage that treat stormwater as a resource rather than a waste product.
mixed-use development
Juxtaposition of land classifications, such as residential, office, commercial, industrial, park, and flood plain within a given area. Land use is controlled by zoning ordinances that reflect political decisions often made at the local level.
modal choices
Transportation options; one’s preferred method of transportation, such as walking, bicycling, using an automobile, riding a bus or rail, etc.
neotraditional development
Typical of pre-World War II communities, neotraditional development is characterized by urban regions comprising many cohesive neighborhoods, each with their own commercial core and linked to one another by some form of transit. While a metropolitan area has a central downtown, the many neighborhood centers provide a secondary service area that can be reached on foot from people’s homes. The neighborhood centers may include retail establishments, offices, service providers, cinemas, health clubs, dense housing, and a transit hub.
New Urbanism

An approach to development and redevelopment promoted by many architects, planners, and urban designers. To qualify as a “new urbanist” project, community development should meet the following criteria.

  • Rule out any development that is gated; that lacks sidewalks; or that has a branching, tree-like street system rather than a grid network.
  • Connect well with surrounding neighborhoods, developments, or towns, while protecting regional open space.
  • Rule out “single-use” developments that include only housing, retail, or office space. The various types of building should all be seamlessly integrated and include workplaces, retail establishments, and different types of housing.
  • Include a neighborhood center within easy and safe walking distance from all dwellings in the neighborhood. Buildings should be designed to make the street feel safe and inviting by having front doors, porches, and windows facing the street instead of having a streetscape of garage doors.
  • Include formal civic spaces and squares.
  • Satisfy the “popsicle test” whereby an 8-year-old in the neighborhood could walk to a store to buy a popsicle without encountering fast-moving cars.
nonpoint source
Large land area such as a crop field or an urban area that discharges pollutants into surface and underground water over a large area; any pollution with a vague, diffuse point of origin is referred to as “nonpoint-source pollution.”
The release of gas into the air from products treated with chemicals during their manufacture.
A term used to describe a system that runs on renewable energy sources independent of a conventional public utility grid.
ozone layer
The protective layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, about 15 miles above the ground, that absorbs some of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, thereby reducing the amount of potentially harmful radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface.

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pedestrian friendly
An area that caters to the needs of pedestrians (see “walkable community”).
The extent to which a surface allows liquids and other substances to filter through it or seep to surrounding areas.
Description of any surface that allows another substance (for example, water) to pass through it.
Permeable; allows something to pass through it.
photovoltaic cell
A device that converts sunlight into electricity.
point source
A single identifiable source that discharges pollutants into the environment. Examples are smokestacks, sewers, ditches, or pipes. Any pollution with a definable, specific source of origin is referred to as “point-source pollution.”
A change in the physical, chemical, or biologic characteristics of the air, water, or soil that can affect the health, survival, or activities of all forms of life in an unwanted way.
Standardized building sections that are created in a factory to be shipped and assembled in another location.
The distance between different land uses such as residential and commercial.
quality of life
Referring to an overall sense of well-being with a strong relation to a person’s health perceptions and ability to function. On a larger scale, quality of life can be viewed as including all aspects of community life that have a direct and quantifiable influence on the physical and mental health of its members.
radiant heating
An efficient heating system that warms cold objects, which then radiate heat into the surrounding space evenly.
Natural materials that are rapidly renewable, such as fast-growing trees and agricultural products.
renewable energy
Energy derived from sources that do not deplete natural resources. Examples include solar, wind, and geothermal energy from the Earth’s core.
Products that are long-lasting and require little maintenance.
Water from rain or snow that is not absorbed into the ground but instead flows over less permeable surfaces into streams and rivers.
The minimum distance required by zoning laws to be maintained between a building and the street or between a structure and property lines.
A comprehensive form-based zoning and planning approach that incorporates smart growth and New Urbanism principles to help organize the human habitat. It is based on the idea of the Transect, which defines a continuum of urbanized conditions ranging from the permanently rural and undeveloped, to the dense, intensely urbanized city centers.
social capital
The individual and communal time and energy that is available for such things as community improvement, social networking, civic engagement, personal recreation, and other activities that create social bonds between individuals and groups. Circumstances that prevent or limit the availability of social capital for a community and its members can have a negative effect on the health and well-being of the members of that community. These negative effects on health and well-being can in turn have negative effects on the community as a whole.
special populations
Certain classifications used to identify target groups including the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.

A development pattern characterized by the following traits:

  1. No boundaries; unlimited outward expansion
  2. Low-density residential and commercial settlements
  3. Widespread strip commercial development; sporadic or “leapfrog” development
  4. Responsibility for land-use and zoning decisions fragmented among various jurisdictions
  5. Private automobiles dominate transportation options; inconvenient or no public transportation available
  6. Great differences in economic status among residential neighborhoods
  7. Land-use segregated into specific zones; no mixed-use development
street network or grid

The patterns formed by roadways and the extent to which they are connected to each other (i.e., “connectivity”). For example,

  • The traditional urban block-like grid involves a dense matrix of interconnected streets typically seen in older urban areas; many traffic options available
  • The hierarchical grid, common in most suburban areas, consists of sets of dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs that feed into secondary roadways that ultimately feed into major roadways; traffic collects on main arteries.
sustainable design
Reducing the environmental impact from the manufacture and use of products.
Meeting the needs of the present without depleting resources or harming natural cycles for future generations.
A term invented to describe a set of linked health problems; two or more afflictions or epidemics interacting simultaneously and synergistically (together having a greater effect than would be expected by adding the effects of each); epidemic synergy contributing to excess burden of disease in a population.

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The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which was enacted June 9, 1998, as Public Law 105-178. TEA-21 authorizes the federal surface transportation programs for highways, highway safety, and transit for the 6-year period 1998-2003. This law provides authorization and funding to transform outdated transportation priorities.
traditional development
Similar to “neotraditional” development.
The characteristics of ecosystems and the transition from one ecosystem to another.
transit-oriented development (TOD)
Development of commercial space, housing, services, and job opportunities close to public transportation, thereby reducing dependence on automobiles. TODs are typically designed to include a mix of land uses within a quarter-mile walking distance of a transit stop or core commercial area.
urban (or community) design
An activity during which decisions are made about the geographic placement of and interaction between natural resources (e.g., topography, vegetation) and built elements (e.g., buildings, roads) in a specific area. Urban designers consider how people will perceive and interact with the human-made environment.
urban growth boundary (UGB)
A line drawn around a metropolitan area, designating the limits of allowable growth. Land outside the boundary is protected from new development.
urban heat islands
A dome of heat over a city that is formed as vegetation is replaced by pavement, buildings, and other structures necessary to accommodate growing populations. The surfaces of these structures absorb, rather than reflect, the sun’s heat, causing surface temperatures to rise. The displacement of trees and shrubs eliminates the natural cooling effects of shading they would have provided.
urban sprawl
See “sprawl.”
walkable community

A community where people can walk safely. A walkable environment that has the following characteristics:

  • Well-maintained and continuous wide sidewalks
  • Ramped curbs
  • Safe and easy street crossings
  • A level terrain
  • Well-lighted streets
  • A grid-patterned street design
  • High street connectivity
  • A safety buffer between pedestrians and motorized vehicles (such as trees, shrubs, streetside parked cars, green space between pedestrians and cars)
  • A slow traffic pattern
  • Minimal building setbacks
  • Cleanliness
  • Land-use patterns characterized as mixed use with high-unit density
Local codes regulating the use and development of property within specific categories.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Promoting physical activity: a guide for community action. Available from URL:

Congress for the New Urbanism. Learn about new urbanism.
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Humpel N, Owen N, Leslie E. Environmental factors associated with adults’ participation in physical activity: a review. Am J Prev Med 2002;22(3):188-99.

Local Government Commission. Available from URL:

National Center for Bicycling and Walking. Available from URL:

Singer M, Clair S. Syndemics and public health: Reconceptualizing disease in bio-social context [PDF – 1.6 MB]. Med Anthropol Q 2003;17(4);423-441.

TEA-21: moving Americans into the 21st century. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Available from URL:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2020 topics and objectives: Educational and community-based programs[online]. [cited 2013 Mar 21]. Available from URL:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Brownfields. Available from URL:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Encouraging smart growth. Available from URL:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Glossary of climate change terms. Available from URL:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Terms of Environment. Available from URL:

U.S. Geological Survey. Geographic information tools for conservation planning. Available from URL:

U.S. Geological Survey. Walkable communities. Available from URL:

World Health Organization. Constitution of the World Health Organization. Available from URL:

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