The City's Goals + Behavioural Urbanism

Christopher Martin

As they grow, Cities extend the advantages of urban living to more and more people. The responsibility of City authorities is to nurture this growth in order that society should continue to flourish, and further develop. To that end, I would argue that some of the City’s goals are to keep people from dying, to solve inequalities, to drive shared prosperity, to help people get around, and to build safe, beautiful places as a canvas on which life can unfold. In short, the goal of Cities is to safeguard and improve people’s quality of life.

To secure this shared prosperity, inevitably the City has to provide a menu of ways for people to get around, to cater for distance, speed, income, ability, and of course individual taste (for example). Importantly, however, the consequences of people’s decisions on how to get about must be transparent to them, to allow them to make informed choices.

Right now, in many instances, if you choose to drive a short trip for which you could otherwise walk, cycle, or take public transport (modes which are beneficial for the city and its people), that choice seems to have zero negative consequences for the chooser. What’s more, if you have a fully insured car in your driveway with a full tank of petrol the trip is (or seems) as good as free to you. But, this choice actually does have negative consequences for the collective good, and hinders the City in its ability to tackle some of the most pressing issues to do with climate change, urban growth, inequality, and inactive lifestyles.

The choice to drive imposes environmental and safety hazards on others at no financial cost to the chooser; including the health effects of local air pollution, the contribution to climate change resulting from carbon emissions, and death and injury arising from crashes.

If we are to enable people to make informed decisions, should we not make plain to them the cost of their choices rather than subsidise those choices? There are numerous examples of this type of pricing policy across the globe. In Singapore, for example, on top of the price of purchasing the car, insuring it and filling the tank you also have to pay about $35k for a 10-year Certificate of Entitlement. This goes some way to connecting the true cost of driving to the driver, as well as making people think harder about if they really need a car in the city.

António Guterres recently floated another idea to do with a large-scale shift in taxation policy. “Tax pollution, not people” he said, highlighting the idea that we move a nation’s taxation away from income tax on salaries, towards a carbon tax on usage and emissions. Issues of implementation aside, this would surely have an impact on people’s usage, by better connecting the cost of transport choices to actions and inevitably influencing behaviour. This is very similar to the idea of charging for plastic bags in the UK. Five years ago, many people never thought about taking their own bag to the supermarket - now the true cost of our actions has been better connected to our choices and has influenced our behaviour. Plastic bag usage in the UK has since fallen by 86% - quite effective!

What I am arguing for is not a wholesale change in the way that our taxation systems are organised – though mainly as it is not my area of expertise, rather than because I don't agree. What I think we do need to do, however, is to better understand the influence that policy, and importantly design, can have on our behaviour.

The framework of engineering is understood, and  as a result solutions utilising engineering norms are accepted, often without further interrogation. This means that these solutions are frequently prioritised over more creative or behavioural solutions - despite the evidenced success of such approaches – because these solutions do not have a framework that is understood or universally accepted. The problem with this is that we are not utilising powerful tools that are available to us to influence people’s behaviour for the good of everyone, and protect our Cities from the most pressing urban challenges of our time.

I think we must harness this power, and by way of further illustration, the 12-year deadline the IPCC + UN report has given us all to make a meaningful reduction in emissions, is longer than it took Apple to get the concept of a smartphone in the hands of more than half the world’s population. No legislators were needed to drive this, just the intense allure of compelling design that changed people’s behaviour.

These concepts of Behavioural Urbanism and Hedonistic Sustainability are something that I am working with increasingly in the work that I do globally, and I will be posting more about this later in the year, and giving keynote presentations on it at the Urban Design Group conference in Birmingham, and Walk21 in Rotterdam in the autumn.

Urban Design Group Article - The City's Goals + Behavioural Urbanism by Christopher Martin

Christopher Martin is an influential urban designer and planner working all over the globe to help communities improve their public spaces, as well as supporting Governments to develop strategy, change policies, and make great places possible.

He is Co-Founder and Director of Urban Strategy at Urban Movement, and a fully qualified Urban Designer and Planner, with over 14 years’ experience leading complex urban projects; applying his expertise to public realm, streets and transport. He consistently adds value through ensuring the seamless integration of urban and landscape design with engineering and transport.

Chris is on the UDG's Exec Committee and Editorial Board for the URBAN DESIGN Journal. He is also a member of the United Nation’s ‘Planners + Climate Action Group’; a Trustee of Living Streets, the charity that champions walking in cities; a member of the Placemaking Leadership Council at Project for Public Spaces; a member of London design review panels; and he has been a lecturer and tutor at The Bartlett School of Planning and Architecture for a number of years.