Interdisciplinary research regarding how the built environment influences physical activity has recently increased. Many research projects conducted jointly by public health and environmental design professionals are using geographic information systems (GIS) to objectively measure the built environment. Numerous methodological issues remain, however, and environmental measurements have not been well documented with accepted, common definitions of valid, reliable variables.
This paper proposes how to create and document standardized definitions for measures of environmental variables using GIS with the ultimate goal of developing reliable, valid measures. Inherent problems with software and data that hamper environmental measurement can be offset by protocols combining clear conceptual bases with detailed measurement instructions.
Examples demonstrate how protocols can more clearly translate concepts into specific measurement.
This paper provides a model for developing protocols to allow high quality comparative research on relationships between the environment and physical activity and other outcomes of public health interest.