Planner Speak: What on earth is the built environment?

When you hear the word ‘environment’, you probably don’t think about anything that was built. Instead images of rivers, forests, mountains, waterfalls, or birds in the trees might come to mind. These are all elements of the natural environment, or all of the living and non-living things that occur naturally in our surroundings. The flip side of the natural environment is the built environment.

The built environment (n.) is everything in our surroundings made by people. Homes, offices, roads, sidewalks, wastewater treatment plants, wireless cell towers, parks, and farms are all part of the built environment. The built environment can range in scale from a single building, to a neighborhood, to an entire city.

office   homes

road   walnut st bridge

The infrastructure that is made by people to support communities is also part of the built environment. You can check back next week for a deep dive into the term ‘infrastructure’, but basically, the systems and structures that people create for water supply, transportation, waste management, telecommunications, and electrical power are all examples of infrastructure.

There is a grey area between the built environment and the natural environment. While parks, landscaping, and farms seem like natural spaces, they could be considered part of the built environment because people change the natural landscape to create all three. Parks may include playgrounds and paths built by people as well as trees, grass, and flowers planted and maintained by people. Landscaping, such as a row of bushes planted between two buildings or trees planted between the sidewalk and the road are also part of the built environment. Farmers may leave part of their land untouched, such as a forest or prairie, so these areas would be considered part of the natural environment. However, if a farmer is tilling soil, planting seeds, and cultivating crops, or raising livestock and sending the animals to a pasture to graze, then these lands would be considered part of the built environment because the farmers are changing the natural landscape to produce food for us to eat.

One challenge that cities and regions face is balancing growth of the built environment with preservation of the natural environment. One of the policies in the Comprehensive Plan 2030 is to “encourage responsible development that maintains the quality and integrity of existing natural resources”. Now that we are updating the comprehensive plan, we want to hear what you think about future development in our area. We want to know what is important to you about your surroundings, both the built environment and the natural environment. Tell us, “What do you want to grow?” in our area by visiting one of our ‘pop-up planner‘ booths or setting your priorities online.

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