What is an Environment?

The meaning of an environment needs some short attention in order to frame understanding in this space.  More broadly the environment can be expressed as the external conditions and resources with which an organism interacts.  More specifically it is necessary here to consider differences between the natural environment and the built environment.  The natural environment can simply refer to all living and non-living things that occur naturally on Earth, whereas the built environment refers more to constructed surroundings that provide the setting for human activity, ranging from large-scale civic surroundings to personal places.

The Built Environment

The built environment that refers largely to all human-made surroundings.  The built environment can therefore be constructed as a setting for several human functions such as housing, neighbourhoods, offices, factories, warehouses, transport hubs and networks, and supporting infrastructure such as energy, water and waste supplies.  

An important point to note in framing this approach is that the built environment focus is often within urban areas (i.e. predominantly towns and cities) rather than rural areas.  Although interaction with the rural is part of the built environment due to its presence of built structures, connectivity with urban areas, and with regards to transport patterns such as rural commuters that work in urban areas (defined as within labour markets as the metropolis).    This inter-connection between the urban and rural demonstrates that the two terms will not be mutually exclusive and there will be some overlap when discussing the built environment.

In practice, the term built environment is used to encompass several inter-disciplinary professions in which it relates to.  Built environment professions include architecture, planning, landscaping, construction, design, management, urban planning, urban design, housing, and regeneration.  ‘The built environment’ as a focus for these professions is not traditional in the academic sense and built environment ideas often draw from long-established academic disciplines to provide and apply more conceptual and theoretical work.  As such more established disciplines that can be drawn on are those such as geography, environmental science, law, public policy, management, design, and technology. 

The Natural Environment

The natural environment encompasses all living species and non-living things that have occurred naturally. With further specificity, the natural environment can mean our landscapes, air, flora and fauna, freshwater and marine environments, geology and soils. The natural environment can be subcategorised into two components of either universal natural resources or ecological units. Universal natural resources are those such as air, water and the climate that does not have clear boundaries, as well as non-human created resources such as energy, radiation, electric charge, and magnetism.

Ecological units as a component of the natural environment are those functioning natural systems boundary that operate without much human intervention.  These ecological units that can systemically function within a particular boundary, are those such as vegetation, soil, microorganisms, atmosphere, and rocks.  With respect to urban areas, both the consumption of natural resources and the healthy ecological functioning of the natural environment will depend largely on a sustainable approach that has been at the forefront of environmentalism that can date back centuries.


Environmentalism in social science terms is a political and ethical movement that strives to protect and improve the quality of the natural environment by human activity. In doing so environmentalism takes on a philosophical stance that living things in nature deserve a degree of moral reasoning and consideration that are manifest in political, economic and social policy. Environmentalists therefore act as an individual or organisational voice to promote environmentalism and influence the political process by lobbying, activism (e.g. grass roots campaigns and protests), and education.

Promotion of environmentalism is particularly important for places and is not confined to rural areas that by definition have more of a ‘natural’ environment.  Urban areas consume vast amounts of natural resources and therefore will have pressure from the environmental movement to (1) maintain and protect the supply of natural resources and quality of ecology that are provided in urban areas; and (2) affect the consumption of natural resources and quality of ecology by those people that function in urban areas – consumption could be by those that reside, work or briefly visit a particular area.

Institutionally the promotion of environmentalism has been relatively new in terms of its recent inclusion in school curriculums. Environmentalism has also matured as a political institution with several primary foci for its permanent place in social conscience. These include: Environmental Science, Environmental Activism, Environmental Advocacy, and Environmental Justice. 

However it should be noted that environmentalism in some form has existed for centuries.  Environmental protection in the past has centred on pollution control, for instance the earliest known writings that concerned environmental pollution were Arabic medical treatises written during the Arab Agricultural Revolution (700-1100) by writers such as Alkindus.  Moreover, pollution control can be seen when King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal in 1272 after its smoke had become a problem. 

Historical environmental concerns such as this tended to centre on air contamination, water contamination, soil contamination, and solid waste mishandling.  Air pollution would become the dominant problem during the industrial revolution from the 18th to 19th Century, and into the more recent past of the 20th Century with the great smog of industrialising cities.  More contemporary environmental focus is the growing concern of CO2 release and subsequent issue of global warming and climate change.