The terms “crowding” and “noise” generally brings to mind pictures of an urban environment, such as the “downtown” portion of a large metropolitan area during the middle of a regular business day. The rumble of traffic in the background, honking horns, and sidewalks with standing room only as people rush to their next appointment or to catch a taxi while headed for their next appointment or destination are just some of the images that comprise such an environment. The terms “open” and “quiet” may bring to mind a scene quite different than the above metropolitan image, perhaps an open field of green grass in the morning, or a park or a zoo that may even be located in the same city. Environmental psychology focuses specifically on how surroundings such as those just mentioned, impact human behavior and also how the environmental conditions can be improved to modify human behavior in a positive way. Crowding or dense population and noise are both relative terms that may have a different meaning from culture to culture and also from one individual to another. For a person that has lived in Tokyo Japan their entire life, for example, a large city like Los Angeles California may seem to be an “open” environment that is not densely populated, whereas a farmer from the state of Wyoming may view Los Angeles as unbearably crowded or densely populated because the farmer is accustomed to wide open areas with only a few people occupying every square mile. Likewise, someone that works all day with a jack-hammer or that is accustomed to living next to a large, international airport, may consider downtown Tokyo to be a relatively quiet place whereas the same Wyoming farmer mentioned earlier would consider downtown Tokyo to be an extremely noisy environment.

Manhattan New York 1940Credit: Public Domain

To better understand the effects of population density and noise, it is important to first define each term in a way that can be applied universally. Population density can be defined as the number of people within a given area of space (such as number of persons per square mile, city block, meter or foot). The term noise can be defined as unwanted sounds or sounds that are not pleasant. Examining and dissecting the concepts of population density and noise from the perspective of human behavior leads to some very interesting findings.

In terms of human behavior, the relative concept of population density is perceived through the lenses of more than one “filter.” These “filters” or components of population density are the individual perceptions that make the concept of population density unique to each individual. Territoriality for the purpose of this discussion is essentially the perceived notion of ownership of physical space and/or the perceived permanent or temporary control over that space. There are varying degrees of territoriality including public, primary and secondary. Public territory (as the name suggests) refers to space that is perceived at not belonging to any one individual and which can be temporarily occupied at any given time by anyone. Primary space includes areas such as a person’s room at home, essentially a space of privacy. Secondary space is an area of perceived semi-ownership, and occupied on a somewhat temporary basis, such as an assigned cubicle at a job location.

Privacy is another concept that also impacts human’s perceived notion of crowding. Privacy is a dynamic concept that defines a boundary of access between an individual an others. Privacy is dynamic in that the level of access allowed can change depending upon the situation, the individuals involved and the space where the individual is located or occupies at a specific time. So for example, the boundary of privacy may allow very little access in public areas as well as with people we do not know (which are more likely to be found in public or unfamiliar areas), and may allow more access within a primary space and with those we know quite well, such as a spouse or parents.

Personal space is another aspect of population density that impacts how one perceives when the number of people in a given space becomes “crowded.” Personal space is the area around each individual that is a combination of both the concept of privacy and primary space. Personal space as well can be dissected into four different distances that are associated with different perceptions of territory and privacy, which include intimate distance (which is relatively very close or touching an individual), personal distance (which varies around 1/2 to 1.5 meters in distance), social distance (which varies at around 1 to 4 meters), and public distance (which is 4 to 10 meters in distance). Note how each range of distance coincides with the perception of territory and privacy. It is important also to understand that the range of distance described with each type of personal space varies from one culture or society to the next. For example, Americans tend to perceive a much wider personal space than individuals from Asian cultures that may be quite comfortable standing close and even touching within space that Americans would consider intimate space.

Territoriality, privacy and personal space are all very real, albeit relative and invisible, aspects of how humans perceive their surroundings and environment. When any or all of these constructs are violated, individual and group behavior can change as a result of feeling “crowded.” The impacts of violating these constructs with a perceived unacceptable increase in population density includes issues such as increased criminal and aggressive behavior, feelings of being confined, a desire to refrain or withdraw from social activities, feeling a loss of control, increased negative reactions and perceptions. The effects of population density can be alleviated to some degree however, by incorporating measures that reinforce the importance of especially privacy and personal space within the environment. So since crowding is really a relative perception of the environment and surroundings, countermeasures such as this can help to prevent many of the aforementioned symptoms associated with crowding.

One such countermeasure to the effects of perceived crowding is the presence natural environments, which is effective even within crowded areas such as the typical urban environment where the rules of territoriality, privacy and personal space are broken. Studies, such as one performed in Japan suggest that natural environments tend to reduce mortality rates as well as increase the health of those living in urban environments. In addition, another study found that neighborhoods within densely populated urban environments which sport more greenery in general, tend to also report less acts of violence and aggression and also find that neighbors are more positive, friendly and more socially interactive, suggesting again that natural environments can alleviate the negative impacts of perceived crowding.

Noise is another concept that is often associated with crowding or densely populated environments, which makes sense because in general, a higher population of individuals increases the chances that more and different types of sound will be generated, as is common in urban environments. Noise in perceived large amounts, which is essentially unwanted forms of sound, has been shown to be detrimental to health as well as being a negative influence on behavior. In both studies of humans, as well as studies of animal subjects, it has been found that increases is perceived noise can foster feelings of stress (as measured by physiological effects such as high blood pressure), a decrease or loss of memory (especially short term memory), insomnia, and very high levels of anxiety. In addition, the extent to which some individuals are able to “tune out” or ignore noise does vary and effects how much negative impact noise has on the individual.

However, with regard to noise and its negative impact, there are effective countermeasures that can be implemented which studies have shown will significantly reduce negative effects. One simple method that has been shown to work well is to place fabric (such as relatively thick curtains or shades) over windows and decorations of fabric throughout a building or house on the walls which help to absorb noise that enters from outside. Another noise reduction countermeasure is to use “white noise” sound to block the noise, which causes health and behavioral issues. For example, running a white noise generating machine or even a simple household fan can create sound waves, which effectively block troublesome exterior noise (and even noise generated from within the business or residential building) and replace it with a background noise that can be easily ignored and essentially benign.

Crowding and noise are two issues that are very real, especially in high population urban environments. The impact of both can be very detrimental, causing increases in health related issues, as well as behavioral problems such as the crime and aggressive behavior often times associated with perceived crowded environments. However, by gaining a better and more in-depth understanding of how humans perceive their surroundings and environment, environmental psychologists have been able to recommend solid solutions that help alleviate and/or resolve problems associated with high population density and noise. By applying solutions found through environmental psychology studies, it is quite possible to transform such unfriendly environments into more pleasant places to live, work and play.