Abstract Background Neighborhood characteristics have been associated with poor maternal and child health outcomes, yet conceptualization of potential mechanisms is still needed. Census data have long served as proxies for area level socioeconomic influences. Unique information captured by neighborhood inventories, mostly conducted in northern US and Canadian urban areas, has shown important aspects of the community environment that are not captured by the socioeconomic and demographic aggregated individual statistics of census data. In this paper, we describe a neighborhood data collection effort tailored to a southern urban area. Methods This study used data from the Pregnancy, Nutrition and Infection (PIN) prospective cohort study to describe neighborhoods where low- and moderate-income pregnant women reside. Women who participated in the PIN study and who resided in Raleigh, NC and its surrounding suburbs were included (n = 703). Neighborhood attributes captured by the inventory included litter, housing condition, road condition, and social interactions that informed theoretical constructs of physical incivility, territoriality and social spaces. US Housing and Population Census 2000 data at the block group level were also assessed to identify the unique contribution of directly observed data. We hypothesize that neighborhood environments can influence health through psychosocial mediated pathways that lead to increased stress, or through disadvantage leading to poor neighborhood resources, or by protective attributes through increased social control. Results Findings suggest that directly observed neighborhood attributes distinguished between different types of areas in which low-income pregnant non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black women lived. Theoretically informed scales of physical incivilities, territoriality and social spaces were constructed and found to be internally consistent. Scales were weakly associated indicating that these constructs capture distinct information about these neighborhoods. Physical incivilities, territoriality and social spaces scales were poorly explained by traditional census variables used to proxy neighborhood environment. Conclusion If neighborhoods influence health through psychosocial mediated pathways then careful detailing of neighborhood attributes that contribute to stress or deterioration, beyond traditional socioeconomic status, are needed. We believe that measuring physical incivility, territoriality and social spaces as expressions of underlying issues of maintenance and social communication make important contributes to this field.