How urban and rural built environments influence the health attitudes and behaviors of people who use drugs

Jerel M. Ezell, Danielle C. Ompad, Suzan Walters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research suggests that the built environment is associated with drug use. However, there is limited scholarship focusing on specific features of the built environment that influence drug use behaviors, experiences, and patterns and how risk factors for drug use are placed in distinctive urban and rural settings. Applying Neely and Samura's conceptual theory that describes space as contested, fluid and historical, interactional and relational, and defined by inequality and difference, we assessed data from semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted between 2019 and 2020 with consumers at syringe exchange programs (SEPs) in an urban location (New York City) and a rural location (southern Illinois). We aimed to contextualize how drug use manifests in each space. In total, 65 individuals, including 59 people who use drugs (PWUD) and six professionals who worked with PWUD, were interviewed. Findings illustrate that, in both the urban and rural setting, the built environment regulates the drug use milieu by mediating social reproduction, namely the degree of agency PWUD exert to acquire and use drugs where they desire. Processes of “stigma zoning,” defined as socio-spatial policing of boundaries of behavior deemed undesirable or deviant, impacted PWUD's socio-geographic mobility, social conditions, and resource access, and modulated PWUD's broader capacity and self-efficacy. Similar patterns of drug use, according to social and economic inequities chiefly related to housing instability, were further observed in both settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102578
JournalHealth and Place
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Built environment
  • Harm reduction
  • Homelessness
  • People who use drugs
  • Rural
  • Urban

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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