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.