The impact of the built environment

The built environment… what is its impact?

When we talk about the environment, we’re referring to an all-encompassing, mutually reliant, yet independently functioning number of factors including the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we swim in and the biodiversity that surrounds us. Each of these things can affect us on its own, and altogether at once.

But one aspect of the environment that often doesn’t spring to mind is the built environment… and that is what we are going to talk about today.

As you will already know, M-CO is a multi-disciplinary team. The diversity of our team and the breadth of knowledge provided by that diversity enables us to consider various topics from different lenses.

Looking at the built environment as the focal point of that lens, the architects, environmentalists, and planners of our team shared their expertise on the built environment and the influence it has on our health and climate.

Let’s see what they had to say…


Interviewees: M-CO Associate Director, Dr Simon O Rafferty, M-CO Researcher & Project Manager, Angel Cullinane, M-CO Project Manager, Irene Brophy

What does the built environment mean and what are its main components? (Irene)

Our built environment shapes our lives and influences how well we live. Physically, it is comprised of any human-made environment from buildings to transportation, parks, and green spaces. Yet, it is by considering the enmeshed relationships between people, society, place and the planet, that can enable a more sustainable and liveable built environment. This is what David Sims of Gehl Architects, in his book Soft Cities (2019) focused on when reframing the built environment as a series of ‘neighbourhoods’, which conjures up the state of being ‘in a relationship with.’

The composition of the built environment can be an opportunity to drive behavioural and lifestyle changes, through living locally as much as possible to address the density and diversity of urbanisation, addressing the physical and social challenges of people’s movement, and better connecting people indoors to outdoors, both for wellbeing benefits, but also to increase awareness of the forces of nature. 

What is the impact of the built environment on health? (Angel)

Biophilic Design acknowledges the relationship between humans and nature, and our need to be continually connected. In comparison to man-made patterns, those found in nature are more readily processed by the human brain, allowing for energy to be used for problem-solving, creativity and thinking time, as well as lowering blood pressure and heart rate. International research has shown that the use of natural design indoors can support restoration, productivity, and focus, which in turn, reduces stress and workplace absence rates.

How can the built environment contribute to climate action? (Simon)

On a global scale, the built environment is a key contributor to climate change, with urban activities such as transport and buildings being major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Cities need to look at transformative changes in how they respond to climate change through a range of decarbonisation, resilience, and adaptation measures.

This includes driving innovation across:

1. City scale energy systems and buildings

2. Mobility systems, land-use integration

3. Climate governance, citizen engagement, resilience, and well-being

4. Biodiversity, water, natural ecosystems and nature based solutions

5. Public health and crisis management

6. Economic systems, climate finance

What are some examples of urban design that encourage healthy living? (Simon)

Climate resilient infrastructure, delivered at multiple scales across urban areas, from transport infrastructure down to tactical urbanism, can contribute to healthy places. This can be the direct physical health impacts and reduced air pollution of active travel infrastructure, reduced urban noise from increased tree planting, increase physical activity enabled by urban green spaces, the air quality and water pollution improvements from some sustainable urban drainage systems through to tackling ill-health in households experiencing energy poverty through building fabric upgrades.

So, as we continue to consider methods, changes and adaptions to mitigate climate change, we must not leave behind the built environment as an imperative influencing factor in not only supporting climate action, but also, societal health and well-being.

See you next time!