Observation (Behavioral mapping)

Observation is a technique used in environmental psychology and related fields for recording people’s behaviours and movements systematically as these behaviours occur in particular locations. A behavioural map is basically a record of where people are, what they actually do, and how their behaviours are distributed in a space. Behavioural maps may be place-centred or individual-centred. A place-centred map shows the locations of people in a particular setting at a particular time engaging in various activities. Place-centred mapping is appropriate when the goal is to assess the usage of a particular area or location. In contrast, an individual-centred map is a record of a person's movements and activities in a setting or settings over time. Individual-centred mapping is appropriate when the goal is to learn about a person or a group’s activities in relation to location and time (Ng, 2016).

Basic Information on the Method
Mode of communication
Face-to-face, Both
Group size
31 and more
Geographical scale
Public space, Neighbourhood
Skills required
Resources needed
Level of Involvement
Level of involvement
Type of knowledge enabled
Convergence (Broad public)
Additional Criteria
Planning phase
Initiatiion, Evaluation & Research
Methodological approach

How to use the method

  1. Behavioural maps are produced manually on site. Obtain an accurate map of the area under observation and print it out. Attach the map to a piece of thick and stiff paperboard for convenient drawing and writing.
  2. Define activities and details to be observed, such as the type and duration of the activity, direction of the movement, users’ gender and age, time of the day, time of the week and weather conditions.
  3. Schedule specific times and their repetitions for observation. Include different times of the week (weekdays and weekends) and different times of the day (morning, afternoon, evening). It is useful to make observations in varying weather conditions (dry, warm and sunny versus rainy, cold and windy).
  4. Develop a system of symbols for coding and counting. The symbols should be clear and simple to minimise the effort required for recording observations. Attach the list of anticipated activities, their assigned symbols and additional details (e.g. duration, age group) to the map for guidance. Include some additional symbols to record unexpected or infrequent activities.
  5. Analyse the results. How did the actual observed activities and their locations differ from your expectations?

What are the outcomes

A map of the common occupancies (activity + location) in relation to particular (spatial) qualities of a place.

Skills required

Skills required from participants - Basic

  • Participants are not engaged into activity. They are merely being observed during their usual activities, often without being notified.

Resources needed

Resources - Medium

  • A map of the area attached to a paperboard and set of coloured pens or pencils
  • Appropriate clothes and footwear for the area and the weather
  • A few days to develop and test the system of symbols for coding and counting
  • A few days to make observations, preferably in different weekdays, daytimes and weather conditions
  • (Optional) Camera for a time-lapse video

Strengths and weaknesses

  • Reveals the relationship between different (spatial) qualities of a place and activities, e.g., how does the design of a square or street encourages or discourages certain uses
  • Reveals how certain activities are influenced by the presence of other activities
  • Validates tacit knowledge of designers: expected activities and their locations versus the actually observed ones
  • Provides experiential input for GIS
  • If participants are notified that they are being observed, their behaviour might significantly change
  • The quality of behavioural maps depends on the skills of the observer
  • To gain a richer and deeper understanding of observation results it might be useful to combine them with individual (or group) interviews

Use cases

Study of spatial characteristic of public parks and their correlation to uses, Tivoli, Ljubljana, Princess Street Gardens and the Meadows, Edinburgh, 2002-2003

The study revealed the so called “edge effect”, meaning that slopes, lines of trees, as well as groups of trees, provide the “anchors” for people to sit or lay down in the middle of large green areas. Furthermore, the data indicated the minimum space requirements for active uses, such as playing football, which depend on the size of the group, as well as the minimum buffer zones between the spaces, occupied by the groups. The findings from observations may be used for designing new or redesigning existing parks with the aim to adjust them for certain activities (Goličnik & Ward Thompson, 2010).

Try one of these tools & resources

  1. Goličnik B. & Marušic D. (2012) Behavioural Maps and GIS in Place Evaluation and Design. In Alam B.M. (Ed.) Application of Geographic Information Systems. Available at: https://www.intechopen.com/books/application-of-geographic-information-systems/behavioural-maps-and-gis-in-place-evaluation-and-design.
  2. Goličnik B. & Ward Thompson C. (2010) Emerging relationships between design and use of urban park spaces. Landscape and Urban planning, 94 (1), 38-53.
  3. Ng C.F. (2016) Behavioural Mapping and Tracking. In Gifford R. (Ed.) Research methods for environmental psychology. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
  4. Zeisel J. (1984) Inquiry by Design: Tools for Environment-behaviour research. Cambridge, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press.