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Environmental Psychology A view of Human Behavior and How People are Effected by Population Density and Territory

Updated on January 25, 2013

First, Some Personal Observations

I grew up in Shreveport which is the third largest city in Louisiana. Next to Shreveport is the city of Bossier. The two cities are divided by the Red River. They are separate cities belonging to separate Parishes (counties) but in many ways they are one single community. The total population of the Shreveport-Bossier Community is somewhere around 400,000 people.

At the time of this writing I am living in the city of Wuhan in Hubei, China. Based on several articles that I've read Wuhan is home to about 10 million people. I've been living here since September of 2010 which at this point means that I've been here for about two years.

This article is part of a paper that was originally written for academic reasons. The original paper focused both on the effects of population density and noise. Due to the length of the paper I have divided the contents into two separate articles. This article focuses entirely on the effects of population density. The second article focuses on the subject of noise.

I've noticed a few changes in my behavior during the time that I've been living in Wuhan. I believe that I am more easily agitated. I'm often angry. This anger is usually focused on people that I encounter in public. Usually it is connected with their behaviors. For some time I have believed that this anger stemmed from differences in culture.

When I re-read this paper with the intention of modifying it for publication here I changed my opinion on the source of my anger. I no longer believe that it is solely a matter of differences between culture. I believe now that I lost a few things when I moved from a city of 400,000 to a city of 10 million. What I lost among other things was personal space and a sense of privacy.

Population Density

Population density greatly effects our moods and our behaviors.
Population density greatly effects our moods and our behaviors. | Source

Our Environment Effects Us

The environment that people live in is partially formed by the people living in that environment, by their behaviors, attitudes and even their numbers. The number of people in an environment can greatly change the behavior of the people in that environment. Population density is the term that describes how many people there are in an area. Population density changes the way people behave in relation to the concepts of territory, privacy and personal space. The density of a population also changes the level of noise that a person is exposed to as well as the value that that person gives to the presence of nature.


The concept of privacy involves the interaction of individuals with other people and the sharing or limiting of information or physical contact with those people (Privacy, 2004). According to the article Privacy (2004) central to the concept of privacy is the ability of an individual to make “decisions about openness/closedness, as well as abilities to control degrees of openness, vary with time and circumstances” (Background and Definition, para. 2). This means that privacy is an issue with two distinct sides. Privacy is not only concerned with the protection of information or physical contact but also with the making these things available to others. Privacy is a flexible concept which varies depending not only on the nature of the situation but also on the individuals involved in that situation (Privacy, 2004).

The Need for Control of Privacy

This flexibility requires that people are able to exert some form of control on the level of privacy that they have (Privacy, 2004). According to the article Privacy (2004) “people develop a desired level of contact with others, compare that desired level with their actually achieved level, and activate privacy regulation mechanisms (if needed and possible) designed to reach their desired levels of contact” (Dynamics of Privacy Regulation, para. 1). These mechanisms are simply strategies which people use to control their privacy through their physical environment such as shutting doors or opening doors (Privacy, 2004). An individual sitting on a crowded bus who wishes to increase his level of privacy may choose the strategy of using a portable music device with headphones in an effort to seclude himself from those around him and prevent people talking to him.


The concept of territory originated with the study of animal behavior (Territoriality, 2004). Territoriality is concerned with the way that both humans and animals use and defend physical space (Territoriality, 2004; Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). According to Abu-Ghazzeh (2000) “no area can be called a territory unless it is characterized by its owner's personal means of identification and unless it constitutes a component of the social behaviour of its related group” (para. 1). This means that territory is not truly defined geographically but behaviorally. Territories exist because of the marking and defending behaviors of the animals and people that create and regulate their territory.

Marking Territory

People mark two kinds of territories; permanent and temporary (Territoriality, 2004; Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). Permanent territories are those that people occupy for many years such as a child's room or a person's home (Territoriality, 2004; Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). Temporary territories can be an area on a beach or a few chairs in a cafeteria (Territoriality, 2004; Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). A child may child may paint their room or decorate it in order to personalize the room or to make it reflect who they are (Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). A person might choose to personalize there home by creating a garden or painting a fence a certain color. This personalization can be viewed as a form of marking the individual's territory. To claim a chair in a cafeteria people may use personal items such as a jacket to show that someone is using the chair in case they have to walk away for a moment (Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). Using personal item to claim space within a public area is a form of marking territory (Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000).

Human Territoriality

Though the concept of territory began with the study of animal behavior there are myriad differences between the way that animals control and use territory and the way that people do (Territoriality, 2004). People use symbolic markers, often use territory in a temporary or transient manner, often live in territory that is owned or defended by other people and may use territory for reasons that are “less rooted in survival needs than in a desire for status, privacy, and solitude” (Territoriality, 2004, The Psychological Concept of Territoriality, para. 1).

Edney (1974) asserts that “human territoriality can conveniently be characterized with a catchall description as a set of behaviors that a person (or persons) displays in relation to a physical environment that he terms 'his,' and that he (or he with others) uses more or less exclusively over time” (p. 959). A person's territory is the space that he controls. This may be the place semi-permanent or temporary residence or it may be an area that is only meant to be occupied for a few hours.

Personal Space

The concept of personal space is similar to the concept of territory in that the concept was first described in the context of studying the behavior patterns of animals (Personal Space, 2004). According to the article Personal Space (2004) the concept describes “the emotionally tinged zone around the human body that people feel is 'their space'” (Personal Space Concept, para. 1). The area which defines an individual's personal space is relative to familiarity with others, the individual's age and the individual's cultural background (Personal Space, 2004).

In general children do not feel the need for as much personal space as adults do (Personal Space, 2004). Strangers feel the need for a greater amount of personal space than people who are friends or family (Personal Space, 2004). People who are in intimate relationships feel the least need for personal space between each other (Personal Space, 2004). People from different cultures may feel different requirements for personal space (Personal Space, 2004)

Increase of Population Density

Increases in population density lead to increases in the number and intensity of stressors in the daily life of an individual (Urban Environments and Human Behavior, 2004). Many of these stressors involve the concepts of territoriality, privacy and personal space as these concepts become more important as the population density increases (Urban Environments and Human Behavior, 2004).

An Increased Need for Privacy

The article Urban Environments and Human Behavior (2004) states that “Urban behavioral particularities comprise the following: segmented and functional ways of interacting with one another, anonymity and lack of involvement, indifference toward deviant and bizarre behaviors, and restriction and selectivity of responses to other peoples demands” (Specific Urban Behavior, para. 2). If the concept of privacy is viewed as a gate through which people grant or restrict access to themselves to others then it can be said that this gate is more restrictive in urban environments than it is in rural environments. People in environments with high population density are more likely to restrict their contact with other people (Urban Environments and Human Behavior, 2004). Privacy can be maintained by interacting with fewer people and by establishing rules to guide interactions within existing interpersonal relationships. “In urban settings, interpersonal relationships are governed by rigorous rules, which enable individuals to preserve the minimum privacy needed in order to protect themselves from intrusion by others despite high-density situations” (Urban Environments and Human Behavior, 2004, Specific Urban Behavior, para. 2).

Increase in Territoriality

An increase in the need for privacy results in an increase in territorial behavior. A greater population density lowers the amount of privacy that people feel which increases their behaviors which insure privacy (Urban Environments and Human Behavior, 2004). A study preformed by Abu-Ghazzeh (2000) shows that “the tendency of residents to delineate territorial boundaries increased in inverse proportion to the sense of privacy provided by the immediate environment” (p. 107). This means that the more people crave privacy the more they are likely to engage in behaviors associated with identifying and defending their territory.

There is a slight paradox here. High density environments increase the value of privacy which decreases the level of interaction between people (Urban Environments and Human Behavior, 2004). At the same time high density environments increase the need for privacy which increases the need people feel to mark their territory and to create more personalized markings (Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). According to Abu-Ghazzeh (2000) “Personalizing behaviours, such as tending to front yards and gardens, are outdoor activities, and the greater the time spent performing these behaviours, the greater the probability of entering into chance meetings and spontaneous conversations with neighbours and passers-by” (p. 111). This means that some of the behaviors meant to limit social interaction and increase privacy may well serve to increase social interaction among neighbors.

Loss of Personal Space

It almost seems obvious that when the population density rises in a confined area the amount of space given to each individual would shrink. This holds true in areas that are not completely confined as well. In public areas when the size of a group of people grows the space which they occupy does not grow proportionately but instead the amount of space that each individual holds tends to shrink (Edney, 1974).

Effect of Nature in Urban Environments

Nature has a strong attraction to people living in urban environments. Van den Burg (2007) states that “it appears that people in urbanized societies commonly believe that contact with nature provides them with restoration from stress and fatigue and improves their health and well-being” (p. 83). According to the article Urban Environments and Human Behavior (2004) “urban residents often seek nature and want to visit urban parks, gardens, and recreational areas for leisure” (Parks, Squares, and Nature in Urban Environments, para. 2). Like an oasis in a desert providing life sustaining water, a public park or garden in an urban environment can provide healthy benefits such as relaxation and freedom from the daily stressors normally found in urban areas (Urban Environments and Human Behavior, 2004).

Community gardens have the benefits of increasing the perception of safety and encouraging social relations between neighbors (Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). Abu-Ghazzeh (2000) aserts that people“who developed vacant lots into gardens and planted flowers and vegetables on sidewalks often encouraged other people to participate in the environment and care for the rest of the neighbourhood spaces” (para. 19). When the homes within a neighborhood have gardens that are taken care of and maintained regularly it creates a perception that the people within the neighborhood care about their homes and are more likely to protect and defend their homes (Abu-Ghazzeh, 2000). This perception leads to a feeling of increased safety.


An increase in population density changes the way that people behave in relation to the concepts of territory, personal space and privacy. In high population areas people feel greater need for privacy have less personal space and increase the personalization of territorial marking. Population density also determines the amount of noise that a person is exposed to in their daily life. Urban life increases the value that people give to nature and settings such as gardens and public parks. Nature has a restorative effect in people's lives which helps them to relax and decrease their levels of stress. Nature can provide an escape from the crowding in urban life created by population density and the stress created by background noise.


Abu-Ghazzeh, T. M. (2000). Environmental Messages in Multiple-family Housing: territory andpersonalization. Landscape Research, 25(1), para.97-115.doi:10.1080/014263900113190

Edney, J. J. (1974). Human territoriality. Psychological Bulletin, 81(12), 959-975.doi:10.1037/h0037444

Personal Space. (2004). In Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from


Privacy. (2004). In Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from

Straub, R. (2007). Health Psychology (2nd ed). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBookCollection database.

Territoriality. (2004). In Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from


Urban Environments and Human Behavior. (2004). In Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology.Retrieved from


Van den Berg, A. E., Hartig, T., & Staats, H. (2007). Preference for Nature in UrbanizedSocieties: Stress, Restoration, and the Pursuit of Sustainability. Journal of Social Issues,63(1), 79-96. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.2007.00497.x

Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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    • Alexandria Joy profile image

      Alexandria Taberski 4 years ago from Loveland, CO

      Have you given any thought as to why certain people prefer living in areas with high density populations as apposed to a more rural one?

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 4 years ago from Wuhan, China

      Alexandria that is a great question. Thank you for asking. If memory serves the most common reasons people give have to do with employment opportunities, access to hospitals, education and that kind of thing. Actually some of the people I work with have given many of the same answers. I live in Wuhan, China which is almost 10 million people. The area I work in is largely dependent on the auto industry here. I teach English in a foreign language center. Most of my students work in the auto industry or related industries. Many of these are not orriginally from Wuhan but from much smaller cities. When I ask them why they moved they usually give the same basic reasons with job opportunities being the most common answer. When I ask if they like Wuhan they almost always say that they do not. If I ask why not, they almost always say the people. Sometimes they do give other reasons but more rarely.

      The trouble with Wuhan is that it is one of about 130 metropolitan cities in China that are rapidly pulling in people from the surrounding areas. There is a lot of opportunity here simply because of this rapid ubanization and a lot of people are capitalizing on it. At the same time it also causes a lot of frustration.

    • Alexandria Joy profile image

      Alexandria Taberski 4 years ago from Loveland, CO

      That makes sense. I've heard a lot of people in America say that they "prefer the country" or "prefer the city" and assumed that it primarily stemmed from either a disdain for or fondness of the type of area they were raised in. When I lived in Seoul, South Korea the reasons people gave were closer to what you've said about job opportunities etc. but there where some who said they just hated the country because there was nothing to do or technology was behind etc.

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 4 years ago from Wuhan, China

      I did have a friend back home who made similar comments to those. She had lived up north most of her life in cities like New York and Philidelphia. She moved to Shreveport because her husband was in the Airforce. She hated Shreveport because she said there was nothing to do there. I think much of this is relative. People who grow up in big cities probably do feel more comfortable in a city than in the country. Environment does have a big impact on our development.

    • Alexandria Joy profile image

      Alexandria Taberski 4 years ago from Loveland, CO

      I agree that it's relative for the most part and that environment has a large impact on us. I enjoyed reading your article and thank you for taking the time to answer my comments.

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