URBS 4/581—Selected Topics:  Growing Up in Cities

Impact of Environment on Behavior

First, it is absolutely essential to determine that the environment has an effect on behavior.  If there is no causal relationship, then it makes no sense to waste time and effort trying to modify the environment.  As Herbert Gans pointed out years ago (People and Plans, 1968), people are very adaptable to physical environments (after all, they can live in the tropics and in the Arctic); it may be that the really important environmental effects are social rather than physical.


Nonetheless, there are a number of studies that demonstrate that there is at least some direct relationship between the physical environment and human behavior:

·        A number of studies have established a relationship between meteorological events and behavior (see Moos & Insel, Issues in Social Ecology,  1974).  Among them:  lunar cycles and homicide and suicide; temperature and aggression; approaching stormy weather and accidents.

·        John B Calhoun (“The role of space in animal sociology,” Journal of Social Issues, 1966) shows how increasing spatial density can have a negative effect on social behavior in a colony of rodents, leading eventually to totally dysfunctional behavior.

·        Terrence Lee (“Urban neighborhood as a socio-spatial schema,” Human Relations, 1968) has shown that one’s home range is “pulled” in the direction of a major attractor (shopping center, school, etc.).

·        Elizabeth Richardson (The Environment of Learning, 1967) reviews a number of effects of the physical environment on learning—from such simple things as movable desks & chairs arranged in pods rather than rows, to large-scale factors such as room size and lighting levels.

·        Melvin Webber (“Order in diversity:  Community without propinquity,” in Cities and Space, 1963) demonstrates how functional distance (distance along line-of-travel rather than crow-flight) can influence social interaction.

In time, this work has led to the development of “community psychology” (see, for example, Julian Rappaport’s Community Psychology:  Values, Research and Action  NY:  Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977), which focuses on community intervention to improve mental health, learning outcomes, and discouraging criminal and antisocial behavior.


Children are a special case in all of this.  Sandra Scarr (1979, p. 810) pointed out, “It is necessary to study children’s behavior in context.”  Behavior has meaning, and meaning is given by [the] larger context and the child’s understanding of it.  Howard Andrews, in  Managing urban space for children,” wrote that “children are regular and natural users of the total environment, not just the spaces which adults—planners, or otherwise—provide especially for them.”  The basic issues for children in their use of space are competence (control) and self-regard (identity).

Maton (1990) found that youth involvement in meaningful activities relates strongly to well-being and satisfaction, both for college populations and for black male and pregnant female teenagers (half of whom had dropped out of school).


A particularly important dimension of this issue is the impact of homelessness on children.  The recent Wilder Research report, “Homeless in Minnesota 2003” found that, in 2003, between 10-12,000 Minnesota youth under 18 experienced homelessness on their own.  The average age was 16, the youngest was 8; 64% were girls, and 16% had a child of their own.  Forty-two percent reported some type of significant mental health problems and 46% reported having been physically or sexually mistreated.  This is a group who experience the urban environment in a different way from most other children.



Anderson, J.  (nd)  “Street-smart children can learn to be alert, not fearful,” Christian Science Monitor

Pollowy, A-M  (1977)  “Design implications” The Urban Nest, pp. 13-31.  Stroudsburg, PA:  Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.




© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 2 May 2005