County Health Rankings Model

Physical Environment

In the model

Use County Health Rankings’ model of health to explore the measures that influence how long and how well we live.

Loading interactive model…


The physical environment is where individuals live, learn, work, and play. People interact with their physical environment through the air they breathe, water they drink, houses they live in, and the transportation they access to travel to work and school. Poor physical environment can affect our ability and that of our families and neighbors to live long and healthy lives.

Clean air and safe water are necessary for good health. Air pollution is associated with increased asthma rates and lung diseases, and an increase in the risk of premature death from heart or lung disease. Water contaminated with chemicals, pesticides, or other contaminants can lead to illness, infection, and increased risks of cancer.

Stable, affordable housing can provide a safe environment for families to live, learn, grow, and form social bonds. However, housing is often the single largest expense for a family and when too much of a paycheck goes to paying the rent or mortgage, this housing cost burden can force people to choose among paying for other essentials such as utilities, food, transportation, or medical care.

Our collective health and well-being depend on opportunity for everyone. Yet, across and within counties there are stark differences in the opportunities to live in safe, affordable homes, especially for people with low incomes and people of color. These differences emerge from discrimination and institutional racism in the form of long-standing, deep-rooted and unfair systems, policies, and practices such as redlining, restrictive zoning rules, and predatory bank lending practices that reinforce residential segregation and barriers to opportunity. It is important to dig into the data to understand how factors related to the physical environment are playing out in your county, especially by race and income.

In the Physical Environment area of the County Health Rankings we look at:

  • Air & Water Quality, providing information on the safety of the air and water for a community.
  • Housing & Transit, looking at those in a community who face housing burdens such as high housing costs, lack of modern plumbing or internet, and over crowding or those who have long commutes to work.