Human beings are not always rational thinkers, but the decisions we each make as individuals collectively impact the shape and form of our cities. Taking the car as opposed to walking. Dumping waste as opposed to segregating it. Leaving the lights on rather than turning them off etc. These tiny decisions that take less than a second to make, but are made en masse and have the power to tip the scale towards a healthier, happier, and more livable city. So it makes sense as an argument that design solutions that can enable small specific human behaviours can be vital to achieving the results we want to see in our cities.
However, the focus on the behavioural psychology of the user tends to vary from one domain of design to another. Product designers have historically had a greater emphasis on understanding behaviour. In this domain, the design and production processes are shorter, making the results of the exercise very quickly visible in terms of whether the intended users are ‘hooked’ to the design – making the decisions that the product was designed to encourage. The value of nudging to influence behaviours has therefore been clearly articulated and utilized in product design.
On the contrary, the focus of urban design primarily tends to be on large systems and the objects created by these systems at the city scale – development regulation, building form, transportation infrastructure, etc. These are long-term, capital-intensive projects where the goal of the design project often focused on integrating accepted ‘best practices’ because it takes so long to evaluate what design solutions have been effective. In recent years however, some of this thinking has begun to evolve with the introduction of ideas such as tactical urbanism that focus on smaller, quicker design projects that are often even temporary, to serve as test-beds for larger design systems. These tactical methods have enabled urban designers to think not just about how the form of the city should be designed, but going one step ahead of that – what design solutions are most effective in solving urban issues by getting people to change their behaviours.
In our previous post we talked about the concept of Nudge Theory, and how it is relevant to our urban spaces and behavioural change for better cities. In this post we will look at a few aspects of our cities and the ideas executed to bring in change.
For example, waste management is an area that requires behaviour change at an individual level. While decentralised waste segregation is ideal as a system, it is important to recognize that the behaviour change of binning the waste first is an important start – without which a larger system will not work. And wouldn’t it be great if the whole act could be turned into a fun game! In the Swiss city of Lucerne, a ‘Lucerne Shines’ program was launched, where decals of games like mazes and hopscotch boxes were pasted around the bins, encouraging both children and adults alike to use the bins and make a conscious effort to bin their wastes. Another fun example is the illusion of the bottomless bin, conceptualised by Fun Theory. The bin was installed with a device that made the dropped trash give the sound effect of long fall. Watch here.
A friendly city is a safe and happy city. This is the result of positive social interactions, and often these positive exchanges are enabled by the built environment. Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation commissioner of New York, and her team successfully converted dangerous and hostile streets into magnets for positive social interactions. They converted under-utilised parking lots into healthy public spaces. All this, with only paint and temporary materials. They took large stretches of street, planted coloured barrels and lounging chairs, and waited for pedestrians to come take over. Sadik-Khan discovered that people need not be told what to do. Given the right space, they behave as expected. These methods were applied to the streets of Times Square New York, Madison Square, and many more streets that needed intervention.
Let’s look at transportation as well. In cities where transportation layouts are car-centric, choosing public transport is a difficult decision to make. How do we help citizens make the right choice? Do designs always need to be sprinkled with amusement to get people’s attention? Or can sometimes, a simple, effective design serve as a behaviour nudge as well? The French city of Metz, restructured their public transport network to decongest car traffic. The large-scale restructuring introduced High Level Bus Services (BHNS) and self-serving bikes. But to really nudge people to change their commute habits, changes were made at every step in design. Dedicated bus lanes were provided to make transit quicker and therefore more appealing. Schedules were managed as a priority, to ensure buses were regular and on time, further encouraging potential transit users to take the plunge. Steps were also taken to include out-of-city car parks and self-service car hiring schemes. The public transport system was seamlessly integrated with the existing automobile layout. All of these steps taken together were designed to allow easy transition and better commuting habits.
There are a world of ideas that can be applied to existing urban scenarios to modify prevailing behaviours. These could be a single small nudge or a large-scale multi-nudge system. Either way, it has been shown through practice that well-designed nudging does work as an excellent approach to change stubborn habits.
What are the other design nudges being applied to urban spaces?
This is great. Exactly the kind of thinking needed in urban planning and design. I saw a really creative example from Iceland the other day. To slow traffic down, they painted an optical illusion to make it look like the pedestrian crossing was floating in the air! Very inventive: https://qz.com/1113713/a-small-town-in-iceland-created-a-levitating-crosswalk-to-slow-traffic/