The law of propinquity

Image by Alexis Brown,

Proximity matters.

Propinquity is another word for proximity. In social psychology terms, describes the effect of physical closeness on the attraction between two people.

Propinquity is exposure (AKA familiarity) coupled with frequency = a closer relationship between two people.

This was first coined by social psychologists Festinger, Schachter and Back in 1950 in a study now called the Westgate Study. They interviewed college students staying in identical dormitory buildings and asked them with whom had they formed the closest connections. The study proved that proximity makes a difference, as students revealed that other students living one or two dorm rooms away were closer friends than those beyond.

This has enormous impact on our spatial environment, and therefore, architecture and urban design. If design can foster more interactions between people — exposure AND frequency — there is a greater likelihood for connections and friendship to occur in a space.

So what is YOUR space? Are you designing an apartment building? A church? An office? Your own home? Would you like the occupants to be better connected to other people? If the answer is yes, it makes sense to design for more interactions to breed exposure and frequency.

Think about an apartment in the city versus a farmhouse — obvious examples at opposite ends of the spectrum. The number of interactions in the city will be vastly more numerous than an isolated farm.

Image by Oscar Nilsson,
Image by Elizabeth Lies,

Perhaps all front doors in a townhouse development could face onto a central green space. Perhaps all bedroom doors in a single dwelling could exit onto a communal living area. Perhaps all workstations could be accessed from the water cooler common area? Perhaps all car parking spaces could be centralised to encourage incidental interactions when running errands using a car.

We are currently designing a two-unit development for two brothers and their families on a suburban site in Melbourne. Whilst their brief requested for separate dwellings for a level of privacy, they wish also to share outdoor space. The preferred design option has the front doors to both units adjacent to each other, and the rear entertaining deck and garden able to be shared via a sliding gate. These two design ideas allow for greater interaction between the brothers and their families — both incidentally in their comings and goings, and purposefully as they entertain together.

If creating community can be demonstrated through creating frequent interactions, therefore design your spaces to ensure maximum incidental connections accordingly.