MacArthur SES & Health Network
MacArthur SES & Health Network

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Measuring Sources of Stress in the Environment

The survey of instruments was completed and the chapter written by Melissa Smiley and Ana Diez Roux. It was last revised in May, 2005.

Chapter Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Key Elements in the Table
  3. General Comments and Areas for Further Research


The attached table summarizes articles demonstrating different ways to measure environmental stressors. While individual people experience stress due to personal events (deaths, marriages, job changes), communities of people also experience daily stress due to features of their neighborhoods (such as traffic, crime, and abandonment of properties near their homes). These environmental stressors have the potential to impact entire communities, and yet are difficult to define and measure.

The overall goal of this table is to identify a range of ways to measure these "environmental stressors." The articles summarized in this table include measurement techniques to collect subjective and objective data. The articles themselves, however, generally do not specifically address any particular health outcome. The table is focused exclusively on identifying and highlighting measurement techniques, and is not concerned with actual results calculated or correlations determined.

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Key Elements in the Table

The following sections briefly describe the contents of each table column and the analysis criteria and definitions used in their creation.


Sources are arranged alphabetically by year, beginning with 2005. Only articles published more recently than 1995 are included in the table. Multiple sources are grouped into one table row when they utilized substantially similar or identical data and measurement technique.

This table is not an exhaustive collection of articles. We consulted various databases, including PubMed, FirstSearch, the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, and Family and Society Studies Worldwide. We systematically reviewed citations in articles in the table and articles that were considered but ultimately not included. Once this process began to yield largely similar results, we were satisfied that we captured the majority of current work in this field.


We identified four main constructs conveyed in the research. Readers are invited to scan the table using these constructs to find measurements of interest. The constructs are described below.

  • Crime - Collecting information about crime victimization, perception, and observation.
  • Life stressors - Collecting information about individual experiences of community-level stressors. This research usually included personal life stressors as well.
  • Neighborhood conditions - Collecting information about conditions including graffiti, abandoned buildings and untended lots.
  • Traffic - Collecting information about traffic volume, speed, and noise.


  • Newspaper review - Quantifying perception of stressors by analyzing local media coverage.
  • Observation - Measuring stressors (usually neighborhood conditions) by observation.
  • Survey - Measuring stressors by surveying residents.


This column contains a short summary of the actual steps taken to measure environmental stressors. For surveys, the number and types of survey items are listed. If survey instruments were replicated within the article, it is noted.


Validity and/or reliability are noted with short descriptions, if applicable to the study. Wherever possible, coefficients and correlations are included. No mention is made if researchers merely noted that scales were previously tested or items had "face validity."

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General Comments and Areas for Further Research

It is difficult to find a wide range of strategies for measuring environmental stressors. Most of the research utilized similar urban-stressor scales for resident surveys. There is a lot of room for further research and development of creative measures of environmental stressors.

Sources Constructs Strategies Measurements Validity Reliability
Jaffee, K. D. et al. (2005) Race, urban community stressors, and behavioral and emotional problems of children with special health care needs. Psychiatric Services. 56 (1), 63-69. Life stressors Survey Surveyed by telephone 257 primary caregivers of children with special health care needs. Utilized the Urban Life Stressors Scale (ULSS), a 21-item instrument to measure subjective contextual community-level stressors in medium to large cities. Items are answered on a 5-point scale from 1 ("no stress at all") to 5 ("extremely stressful-more than I can handle"). Items address both individual and community-wide chronic stressors. Previously established Previously established
Gee, G. & Takeuchi, D. (2004) Traffic stress, vehicular burden and well-being: A multi-level analysis. Social Science & Medicine. 59, 402-414. Crime

Neighborhood conditions

Survey Surveyed 1747 Chinese-Americans within 36 census tracts in Los Angeles. Measured traffic stress with a Likert-response scale asking how much respondents were bothered by traffic, auto maintenance, and accidents in the last month. Perceived environment measured with four questions on physical conditions of the neighborhood, noise, pollution, and crime. None Chronbach's alpha - traffic stress scale=.58, perceived environment = .69
Latkin, C. & Curry, A. (2003) Stressful neighborhoods and depression: A prospective study of the impact of neighborhood disorder. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 44(1), 34-44. Neighborhood conditions Survey Utilized a seven-item, three-point scale assessing neighborhood perceptions. Reponses ranged from 1 ("not a problem") to 3 ("big problem"). Items were vandalism, litter, vacant housing, burglary, groups of teens, drugs, and people getting robbed. None Chronbach's alpha = .89
Rosenthal, B. S. & Wilson, W. C. (2003) The association of ecological variables and psychological distress with exposure to community violence among adolescents. Adolescence. 28 (151), 459-478. Violence Survey Administered a survey to first-year college students to determine exposure to community violence (not domestic violence) during high school years. Used two scales to reflect exposure to community violence. One scale contained 7 items that examined degree of exposure as a direct victim and the other contained 11 items that examined directly witnessing violence. None Scale internal consistencies as indicated by Chronbach's alpha were .70 (victim) and .91 (witness)
Boardman, J. et al. (2001) Neighborhood disadvantage, stress, and drug use among adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 42(2), 151-165. Life stressors Survey Asked questions about social and environmental stressors as part of the 1995 Detroit Area Study, a multistage area probability sample of 1,139 adults in the Detroit area. Social strain data was gathered by a series of nine questions that identify everyday unfair treatment like lack of courtesy, lack of respect, and poor service. None None
Johnson, S. et al. (2001) An analysis of stressors and co-morbid mental health problems that contribute to youths' paths to substance-specific services. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research. 28(4), 412-426. Crime

Neighborhood conditions
Survey Gathered data on community environment with youths' rating of problems in their own neighborhoods. Problems included violent crime, vacant buildings, prostitution and homelessness. None None
Ross, C. E. & Mirowsky, J. (2001) Neighborhood disadvantage, disorder, and health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 42(3), 258-276. Neighborhood conditions Survey Utilized with the Ross-Mirowsky neighborhood disorder scale to reveal conditions and activities perceived to signal the breakdown of social order. It includes measurement of graffiti, vandalism, noise and vacant buildings. All items are included in the article. None Chronbach's alpha = .916
Steptoe, A. & Feldman, P. (2001) Neighborhood problems as sources of chronic stress: Development of a measure of neighborhood problems, and associations with socioeconomic status and health. Ann Behav Med 23(3), 177-185. Neighborhood conditions Survey Gathered data on neighborhood stress from 658 survey respondents in the London area. Created a neighborhood problems scale of 10 items, including litter, smells, dogs, and traffic noise (all are listed within the article), that could be problems in an area. Respondents rated the extent of the problem from 1 (not a problem) to 3 (serious problem). None Chronbach's alpha for the scale was .79
Ross, C. E. & Jang, S. J. (2000) Neighborhood disorder, fear and mistrust: The buffering role of social ties with neighbors. American Journal of Community Psychology. 28(4), 401-420. Neighborhood conditions Survey Utilized a perceived neighborhood disorder scale with both social and physical components. Scale items include graffiti, noise, and building upkeep. All items are reproduced in the article. None Chronbach's alpha = .915
Aneshensel, C. & Sucoff, C. The neighborhood context of adolescent mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 37(4), 293-310. Crime

Neighborhood conditions
Survey Surveyed adolescents for objective data about their neighborhoods. 11 questions about ambient hazards included safety, violent crimes, shootings, property damage, gangs, drug use, graffiti, police harassment, and the condition of housing. 4-point response categories ranged None Chronbach's alpha = .9
Perkins, D. D. & Taylor, R. B. (1996) Ecological assessments of community disorder: Their relationship to fear of crime and theoretical implications. American Journal of Community Psychology. 24(1), 63-107. Crime

Neighborhood conditions
Newspaper review


Surveyed 412 residents of 50 neighborhoods in Baltimore about perceptions of neighborhood quality. Residents assessed crime on a three-point scale (big problem, somewhat of a problem, not a problem). Perceived physical disorder, like vandalism and vacant housing, were also measured.

Directly observed crime and fear-related factors of the same environments. Observers noted numbers of people on the street, abandoned cars, damaged property, types of open land use, and land maintenance. Raters also counted the number of occupied residential units and rated non-residential buildings for litter, vandalism and maintenance.

Conducted a local newspaper review to account for fear-related influence of news coverage. Articles included crime and disorder-related coverage.
None Crime scale alpha = .88

Physical disorder alpha = .87

High interrater reliabilities.
Sooman, A. & Macintyre, S. (1995) Health and perceptions of the local environment in socially contrasting neighbourhoods in Glasgow. Health & Place. 1(1), 15-26. Crime

Neighborhood conditions

Survey Using a three-point scale ('not a problem,' 'minor problem,' 'serious problem'), respondents indicated perceptions of 11 local area problems. They were vandalism, litter, smells, assaults, disturbance by young people, speeding traffic, discarded needles, dangerous pavement, dogs, and poor public transit. Respondents were also asked about the reputation of their neighborhood and their own fear of crime. None None

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