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Perceived density : how apartment dwellers view their surroundings

Le courrier du CNRS, n° 82, 1996, pp.131-132
Annie Moch, Florence Bordas et Danièle Hermand

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1Among urban issues, the question of density has always been considered crucial. Most often, discussions centre on whether to increase or reduce the density of certain neighbourhoods.

2However, an important distinction must first be made between objective density on the one hand - a statistical indicator providing population, housing, or employment figures for a given surface of land (block, plot of land, neighbourhood), and subjective density on the other - how people experience population density from a psychological point of view. Research conducted over the past few years in environmental psychology has shown that it is not so much actual physical density that matters, but rather people's perception of it. Thus, living in a given space considered too small, and/or the feeling of being forced into contacts that one would rather avoid may lead to a sense of overcrowding and result in physical and psychological discomfort or even in stressful reactions.

Repercussions on social life

3We know that the feeling of overcrowdings can be ascribed to many different reasons : there are physical causes (restricted space, tall buildings, the presence or lack of parks and greenery, etc.), social causes (interpersonal relationships), and individual factors (age, sex, or socio-cultural background). Research into the effects of high density levels in residential areas has shed some light on the underlying mechanisms. A. Baum and S. Valins compared the attitudes and behaviour of students living in different types of dormitories. Depending on the layout of the rooms, students were more or less likely to meet up with their fellow students. One group lived in a “corridor”-type dormitory where the rooms were lined up along a hallway : in this case, students had to share common areas with a great number of people. In the other group, students lived in suites with bedrooms placed around a common living-room : here, the chances of meeting other students were reduced. Even though the average amount of space per person was the same in either case, the “corridor” students experienced a stronger feeling of living in overpopulated housing, complained of unwanted encounters, tried to avoid and often cut themselves off from others. A study conducted in India also showed that living in overcrowded housing weakens social ties with family and friends ; the need to be alone is greater and so is the feeling of discomfort. The need for privacy within the home is extremely important and if disregarded, can have serious repercussions on social life.

Actual density and perceived density

4Our current research focuses on the perception of human density in apartment houses, looking at residents' satisfaction with their homes in terms of space and their perception of density both inside the building and outside of it in the surrounding neighbourhood. Our aims are both to assess the impact of various architectural criteria (i.e. the height of the building, the number of apartments on a landing, etc.) on these subjective perceptions and also to find out whether this perception is influenced by interpersonal relationships and by the feeling of “being in control” of one's social interactions.

5We selected three buildings (two high-rise buildings of 23 and 28 floors respectively, and a thirteen-storey apartment complex) located in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. They are not located on the same street, even though they are very close to each other, and their tenants have similar socio-economic backgrounds.

6We began with a series of interviews which served as a basis for the standardized questionnaire we subsequently elaborated. In the questionnaire, residents were requested to answer the following questions : how satisfied are they with their neighbourhood, their building and their apartment ; how do they perceive human density in each these three places ; to what extent do they feel that they can “control” their social interactions ; how do they feel, both physically and mentally ; they are asked to describe the people and the buildings surrounding them.

7An analysis of these interviews provided several important insights into the issues that concern us. For the most part, the residents enjoy living in this neighbourhood. They are very appreciative of the availability of public transportation, of schools and health care facilities. Opinions were divided about small local shops, some felt there were not enough ; many also complained about a lack of green areas.

8The feeling of overcrowding was most often mentioned by those living in the tallest high-rise building. They compared their building to “a real city”, spoke of “huge, immense” areas and of “high concentrations of people”. Regardless of the type of building, density is often perceived through other factors which people associate with the presence of others, such as noise, cleanliness, odours, unwanted meetings with people one would rather avoid. As far as social ties are concerned, neighbourly relationships in the high rises were limited to polite exchanges, whereas in the 13-storey complex, mutual aid relationships between neighbours were more developed, especially between senior citizens.

9Our first statistical measurements confirm the influence of certain variables on density perception. Satisfaction with one's living quarters (the number of rooms, and/or the size of the rooms) proved to be linked not only to perception of density at home, but also to perception of the density of the neighbourhood. It seems that the more cramped people feel in their living quarters, the more they tend to perceive the entire neighbourhood as being overcrowded.

10Perception of density and one's evaluation of one's social relationships are also clearly linked. The more a resident feels crowded in, the more he/she will be dissatisfied with the quality of his/her interactions with neighbours. The feeling of living in crowded conditions causes people to fear encounters and avoid contact. Waiting for the lift or the bus at rush hour can increase this feeling.

11It also appears from these interviews that well-being is inversely proportional to the feeling of overcrowdings: the higher the perceived density, the more people feel ill at ease in their surroundings.

12In conclusion, the need for extra space at home (internal density) seems to influence residents' perception of density outside their homes. When people consider themselves as living in crowded conditions, their social relationships suffer. Other analyses, which are currently underway, should provide more information on the impact of the buildings' architectural design (height of buildings, number of apartments per landing, etc.) as well as the influence of certain individual factors such as age or life-styles.

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Baum A., Valins S., Architectural and social behavior : Psychological studies of social density, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, 1977.

Evans G.W., Palsane M., Lepore S.J., Martin J., “Residential density and psychological health : the mediating effects of social support”, Journal of Personality ansd Social Psycholoy, Vol 57, n° 6, 994-999, 1989.

Moch A., Les stress de l'environnement. De la perception au stress, Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1989

Moch A., Maramotti I., “Les ambiances de la ville : du stress au confort”, Pratiques Psychologiques, n° spécial Qualité de vie, 17-24, 1995.

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Référence électronique

Annie Moch, Florence Bordas et Danièle Hermand, « Perceived density : how apartment dwellers view their surroundings », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Dossiers, mis en ligne le 12 avril 1996, consulté le 23 juillet 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cybergeo.294

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Annie Moch

Professeur de psychologie de l'environnement à l'Université Paris X-Nanterre, Laboratoire de géographie urbaine.

Florence Bordas

Chercheur au Laboratoire de géographie urbaine, Université Paris X-Nanterre, Département de psychologie, 200, avenue de la République, 92001 Nanterre Cedex.

Danièle Hermand

Maître de conférences à l'Université Charles de Gaulle-Lille III, 3, rue Barreau, 59650 Villeneuve d'Ascq.

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© CNRS-UMR Géographie-cités 8504

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