Historically, the physical environment has been a target for public health policy across the globe. This remains the case in developing countries where the enduring infectious and toxic challenge posed by the environment is tangible and its health impact is manifest. However, in Western societies, the relevance of the environment to health has become obscured. Even when this is not the case, the perspective is usually narrow, centering on specific toxic, infectious or allergenic agents in particular environmental compartments. It is rare for importance to be given to a health-determining role for the environment acting through broader psychosocial mechanisms. The result is that environmental manipulation is seen as a cornerstone of the public health response for comparatively few health concerns. This paper considers how public health policies and action on the physical environment may be pursued more optimally. The need for a more strategic approach, which employs a new conceptual model that recognizes the complexity and contextual issues affecting the relationship between the environment and health but retains sufficient flexibility and simplicity to have practical application, is identified. Building on recent work, a model is proposed and pointers are given for its use in a practical context.