A wide array of tools exists for measuring different features of the built environment, many of them well validated. These existing tools fall into three categories: 1) interview or self-administered questionnaires which primarily measure perceptions, 2) tools that collect archival (existing) data, often using GIS, and 3) systematic observation or audit tools. It is often difficult for local program staff and evaluators to know which features of the built environment are most important to measure on the basis of the health behaviors and outcomes they are trying to affect. It is also difficult to know which tool(s) to choose to most accurately and feasibly assess those features.
The Built Environment Assessment Tool (BE Tool) (an adaptation of MAPS) was designed to alleviate some of the challenges posed by the significant number of narrowly focused tools aimed at only one activity (walking), one subpopulation (older adults), or one public health area (inactivity). It was created as a collaborative enterprise across multiple areas of public health – health promotion, injury prevention, environmental health, etc. It is a direct systematic observation data collection instrument for measuring the core features and quality of the built environment related to behaviors that affect health, especially behaviors such as walking, biking, and other types of physical activity. There are many aspects of the built environment. The built environment includes the buildings, roads, sidewalks, utilities, homes, transit, fixtures, parks and all other man-made entities that form the physical characteristics of a community. The built environment can impact human health by affecting rates of physical activity, air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter that can exacerbate asthma and respiratory disease, and emissions of carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.
The BE Tool was not designed to assess every aspect of the built environment. Rather the tool assesses a core set of features agreed upon by subject matter experts to be most relevant. The core features assessed in the BE Tool include: built environment infrastructure (e.g., road type, curb cuts/ramps, intersections/crosswalks, traffic control, transportation), walkability (e.g. sidewalk/path features, walking safety, aesthetics & amenities), bikeability (e.g., bicycle lane/path features), recreational sites and structures, and the food environment (e.g., access to grocery stores, convenience stores, farmers markets, etc.). Additional questions or modules could be added by users if more detail about an aspect of the built environment, such as the nutrition environment or pedestrian environment, is desired.