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Where environment meets psychology.

Behavioral Focal Points and Sense of Place

Do neighborhood hubs help us feel a sense of connection and belonging?

I went walking recently in my old neighborhood. My son was asleep in his stroller, so I decided to make a detour into the community where my husband and I lived before we were parents. A few posts ago, I blogged about the concept of sense of place and how it can help us understand ourselves and those around us. This particular neighbourhood is the first that comes to my mind when I think of the places in which I feel connected and comfortable. However, on my return to the community in question, I noticed several objective, design-related attributes – perhaps because we no longer reside there so I wasn’t walking around the area with a purpose (e.g., heading to a bus stop to get to campus or running an errand). The streets remain compact and dense, vibrant and lovely. I noticed that certain land uses seemed to be working well; that the area is still walkable; and transit was frequent and smooth. Traffic was calm; people were outside gardening and talking with other residents.

This neighborhood nostalgia reminded me of a concept I learned about as a younger graduate student: behavioral focal points. Very broadly, a behavioral focal point is a behavior setting that is accessible to a large number of people in a geographical area (Bechtel, 1987). If you took an undergraduate psychology course, you might remember how Roger Barker discovered that behavior could be studied in small portions that he termed “behaviour settings.” He described how patterns of behaviour related to a specific place often occur at predictable intervals. For example, if you patronize a coffee shop regularly, you are likely aware of the typical way in which customers obtain coffee (where the line-up usually goes, how much detail to give to the cashier, where to wait to receive your coffee, and so on.) So, a behavioral focal point can be described as a hub at which a large behaviour setting (or several smaller settings) is situated. In urban areas, they often function as spots for eating, drinking, socializing, and the selling of goods and services.

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When I think about why I feel a sense of place toward the community we left, many of the reasons are emotional. But some have to do, either consciously or unconsciously, with the objective, architectural attributes that afforded me opportunities for social connection and public participation. Bechtel (1987) points out that strong behavioral focal points combine several complimentary functions, attracting more people to the area than each function would separately. These tend to be centrally located at a crossroads of traffic and have a high degree of richness and visual access so everyone can see most other people occupying the space. This is certainly the case in my old community: there is a village-like hub with numerous commercial and public amenities servicing the residential streets surrounding from it. In hindsight, this village area was a key place-making source for me.

Indeed, because of this behavioral focal point, I grew to know the staff working at the coffee shop I visited daily, and in the grocery store my husband and I frequented. I recognized certain people on our nightly walking route, and I think I would still distinguish these people as neighbors rather than strangers.

It would seem that the behavioral focal points of my former neighborhood aided the development of my positive and poignant sense of place toward it. These settings taught me the social rules, customs, and typical manners of the community, allowing me to fit in and meet my neighbours. As an environmental psychologist in training, my educated guess is that there may often be an association between neighborhoods with clear behavioral focal points and residents’ sense of place. Maybe part of my dissertation will be devoted to finding out!

References:

Bechtel, R. B. (1987). Ecological psychology. In R. B. Betchel, R.W. Marans, & W. Michelson (Eds.),    Methods in environmental and behavioural research (pp. 191-215). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Lindsay J. McCunn, MSc is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

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