Living in close quarters

We all like to have room to ourselves, but not everybody has that option. What happens when too many people are forced to live in a cramped space?

 Illustration by  May Simargool

Illustration by May Simargool

The term crowding may conjure up images of a busy waiting room, overloaded public transport or the beer line at a music festival. These situations can be stressful at the time, but they are temporary — once over, a person can go about their day. But for some, crowding is an ongoing problem that significantly impacts their quality of life. Household crowding affects both physical and mental health because it restricts movement and privacy and interrupts sleep. The effects of crowding have been studied in many environments including the home, prisons, and refugee camps, each having unique repercussions. 

Generally speaking, crowding is a situation where there are more people living in one household than there is adequate space for. Crowding can take into consideration both spatial density and social density, which respectively look at the amount of floor space per person and the number of people in a household. But it is not always just a matter of numbers; there is a difference between objective and subjective crowding. While objective crowding can be defined and measured, subjective crowding is more nuanced and deals with a person’s perceptions. It often involves the feeling that one has a lack of privacy and control over what others know about them. We also perceive crowding differently based on our age, gender, ethnicity, household composition, relative position in the household hierarchy, and lifecycle stage. There are many different housing standards, but the guidelines typically require one room per single adult or couple and half a room per child under 12.

Household crowding

A study of over 500 crowded English households reported that three-quarters of families experienced disrupted sleep and strained relationships due to lack of space. Nine out of 10 families cited lack of privacy as a major problem and almost as many perceived increased fights and arguments among children were due to their cramped living situations. As related in the book Drunk Tank Pink, children who were given 15 minutes to play in a crowded room spent four of them fighting, compared to just 30 seconds of fighting when the number of children was halved.

The majority of respondents in the English household study indicated that their children’s development was also affected by the lack of appropriate study or play areas. This is corroborated by other studies that have found that crowding is associated with aggression and hyperactivity, as well as conflict with parents. Exacerbating the issue, children who experience crowding both at home and in daycare have more severe behavioural and cognitive development problems than toddlers who are only crowded in one environment.

Many of the study respondents noticed psychological effects in themselves, including depression, anxiety, or stress. In general, anxiety and hostility increase over time in crowded living situations. Simple morning routines become difficult when many people need to get ready for the day at the same time. During the night, many of the respondents sleep in cramped conditions, in furniture other than beds, or alongside children. Understandably, limited space was cited as one of the reasons for the breakup of romantic relationships. They explained that bonding could not occur between family members in these conditions, and that crowding “means no happy life for the family”.

 
  While most of us expect and accept temporary crowding on public transit, chronic household crowding can affect our mental and physical health and impact on our personal relationships.   Diego Torres Silvestre/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

While most of us expect and accept temporary crowding on public transit, chronic household crowding can affect our mental and physical health and impact on our personal relationships. Diego Torres Silvestre/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

In addition to straining relationships within the home, crowding can also fracture social support networks; 72% of families in the study noted that they couldn’t have friends over due to lack of space. A large study suggested that “crowding results in physical withdrawal, psychological withdrawal and a lack of general planning behaviour.” Additionally, they confirm that crowding is related to poor mental health and poor social relationships among those in the household.

On top of social problems, there are health issues that are more prevalent in crowded households. Crowding has been suggested to increase the risk of multiple infections, severe disease, disease transmission, infection at a younger age, and the risk of long-term adverse effects of infections. Dysentery, asthma, and chronic bronchitis are all positively associated with crowding, as are Helicobacter pylori infection and Hepatitis A virus.

It should be stressed that while all of the above may be correlated with crowding, it is difficult to say for certain whether crowding itself directly causes increased risks of these diseases. In a review of housing and population health, researchers cautioned “a causal relationship between density and various health outcomes has still not been established with any certainty by researchers.” This is due in part to the countless confounding variables. For example, perhaps those in more crowded dwellings are more likely to be in a lower socioeconomic status, have lower education levels, poorer nutrition and less medical care. While most researchers take into account many of these variables, the list is often not comprehensive.

Our previous personal experiences regarding social density affect how we perceive future situations. People’s perception of household crowding is affected by the neighbourhood context. City dwellers may be used to high density and accept more crowding than those from less densely populated areas. Those in a crowded home may not perceive social crowding if they are surrounded by ample natural spaces, whereas those living immediately next to other households perceive more crowding.

 
  A crowded household can mean too many people sleeping in one bedroom or bed, which disrupts sleep and our need for privacy.   Methodist Episcopal Church/  Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

A crowded household can mean too many people sleeping in one bedroom or bed, which disrupts sleep and our need for privacy. Methodist Episcopal Church/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

 

Perceptions of crowding are also shaped by culture. The definition of a bedroom or of generally accepted sleeping arrangements is culturally constructed. In particular, Western norms and expectations of physical and emotional privacy inform standards, but these are not one-size-fits-all. For example, Mexicans living in Los Angeles might opt to share beds, leaving other bedrooms empty. In general, immigrant groups experience a disproportionate amount of crowding, which may be influenced in part by cultural factors in conjunction with economic ones.

While low incomes are associated with crowding in areas that have high housing costs, an increase in income may not reduce crowding because housing is just one financial pressure that families experience. The type of housing stock available at different price points may also exacerbate crowding. For example, in high-cost cities, apartments with one or two bedrooms may be the most affordable option, but these do not offer enough space for most families with children. Overall, there is a need for more affordable housing with a higher number of bedrooms to decrease the incidence of household crowding.

Prison crowding

Crowding is not just a problem in urban households. In 2012, the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) published a report that delved into causes of prison crowding, the issues that stem from it and potential solutions, with a particular focus on numbers from England and Wales. The CJA points out that prison crowding causes a myriad of problems, including higher stress for both inmates and prison staff, higher spread of diseases, increased risk of violence and prison riots, and problems with sanitation facilities and services including healthcare. Additionally, prisoners may have reduced access to education, training, and work opportunities. If offenders are unable to maintain an employment record, it becomes more difficult for them to obtain work once released, which is problematic as employment significantly reduces the risk of reoffending.

Overburdened health services are particularly problematic for prisoners with mental health or drug or alcohol problems, as they may not receive the level of support they need. This restricted access to basic services engenders frustration and tension, and ultimately causes more violence, including riots, putting higher pressure on staff. Visitor centres may also be crowded, limiting the prisoners’ access to social support. Even if visitors are able to book an appointment, crowding at a more local prison might mean that they are housed impractically far away to allow for regular visitation.

Crowding may also limit the availability of recreation and leisure space and programs, alongside the usual lack of privacy. All of this greatly affects the quality of life and wellbeing, and should be remedied with urgency so that the prisoners have a greater chance at success once they are released.

 
  Due to many compounding factors, prison crowding is on the rise and it causes problems for both the prisoners and staff members.   Charlie Beldon/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Due to many compounding factors, prison crowding is on the rise and it causes problems for both the prisoners and staff members. Charlie Beldon/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Higher rates of imprisonment, longer sentences, and an increase in the number of indeterminate-length sentences are what drive the rise in prison crowding, according to the report. In England and Wales, the rate of imprisonment rose from 90 to 155 prisoners per 100,000 people in the general population between 1992 and 2010. While just one in seven offenders convicted of indictable offences was sentenced to prison in 1992, one in four offenders were sent to prison in 2010. Compounding the problem, the percentage of prisoners serving out indeterminate sentences more than doubled in the same period, from 8% to 19%.

One way to alleviate some of the pressure on the prison system is to identify groups of offenders who should be diverted from prisons. The CJA report highlights that between 2006 and 2010 the number of cannabis possession court cases doubled from 12,000 to 25,000. People have also been imprisoned short-term for defaulting on fines or for their children’s truancy from school. The CJA also calls for the diversion of offenders with mental health problems into treatment programs, as this group is especially vulnerable in prisons. There are many cases where the severity of the sentence does not match the crime, particularly when the offenders do not pose a risk to public safety.

Refugee camp crowding

As in households and prisons, there are many social and psychological effects of overcrowding in refugee camps, as well as physical ones. Crowded refugee camps lack privacy and are noisy, disrupting rest and sleep and exacerbating social conflicts. This increases emotional stress, social disorganisation and physical conflict due to a breakdown in small social communities that would otherwise provide security, a sense of social control, and personal identity.

Diseases spread more easily due to close social proximity, and are helped along by insufficient clean water supplies and scant sanitation systems. Infrastructure, healthcare, education, and caregivers all become overburdened. As women are often the ones who care for others and maintain the household, their ability to access social and economic resources is reduced.

Sadly, children and other vulnerable people suffer the most in crowded refugee camps. Boys and girls living in camps have higher levels of behavioural problems including fighting, jealousy, and irresponsibility than those living in nearby villages and cities. Education is limited; children learn in classrooms of 45 to 60 students, and do not have access to adequate educational resources. Under particularly dire circumstances, families may marry off young daughters to make more space. The elderly and disabled are especially affected by the lack of specialists and space, and overburdened services and caregivers.

 
  Crowded conditions in refugee camps can overburden support services and infrastructure, alongside all the problems caused by household crowding.   Aerial Photographic Archives for Archaeology in the Middle East/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Crowded conditions in refugee camps can overburden support services and infrastructure, alongside all the problems caused by household crowding. Aerial Photographic Archives for Archaeology in the Middle East/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Crowding means that there is not adequate infrastructure to service the number of people in refugee camps. Electricity grids can become overloaded, and there may not be enough room for garbage removal vehicles to service narrow lanes. The accumulating rubbish becomes a further health hazard and increases frustration among residents. Crowding also compromises physical safety as people respond to the limited space by adding on to their housing units, often vertically. These additions generally do not follow building safety codes, and may collapse at any time.

Unfortunately, there are few programs or resources being directed toward the problem of crowding in refugee camps. Further studies should determine the needs of those living in refugee camps, which can be used to develop initiatives to address the issues raised. Ideally the programs would implement improvements, in both the short-term and long-term, to increase the wellbeing and quality of life of the camp residents.

There are many circumstances that may not allow for everyone to have a room to call their own, particularly those in prisons or refugee camps. On a smaller scale, taking measures like spending time outside the home in a more spacious place can help moderate the effects of household crowding. But the serious issues caused by crowding, be it increased risk of infection in the home, greater agitation in prisons or overburdened services in refugee camps, need to be addressed at a higher level. Hopefully, further research will put the spotlight on this issue and bring it the attention it so badly needs. 

Edited by Deborah Kane