A neighbourhood nudge: Four ways behavioural science can create thriving spaces

February 18, 2020  |  By Clare Delargy, Senior Advisor, Behavioural Insights Team


With the new government committed to building ‘places we want to live in’ by giving communities more say on development, and the upcoming NLGN conference in March looking at how to unleash community power, it is a good time to re-examine how we can use behavioural science throughout the planning process to help build thriving communities.

The environments we live in shape how we feel and behave, and a well-designed space should make social connection easy. Councils have a major influence on our built environment through the planning system. The system is mind-bogglingly complex, and is likely to be overwhelming for those tasked with managing it. This makes it hard to focus on anything other than the task at hand; it stymies creative approaches to community building and ensures the process is focal, not the outcome. And if the system is complex for professionals, what of the residents we want to engage, who are inexperienced and time constrained?

Indeed, the public have little trust that developers or planners will do a good job. But recognising and designing for complexity has promise; we can’t give people more cognitive bandwidth, nor can we dismantle the process, but behavioural science offers us a way of making relatively small changes to framing or context, which can help to build better communities. Insights from behavioural science are often referred to as “nudges” – the idea that relatively small changes to framing or context can lead to a shift toward more desirable behaviours. We’ve identified a set of key moments of choice in the planning system where insights from behavioural science could be applied.

  1. Maximise community funding by testing ideas
    Councils can use funding from the Community Infrastructure Levy and other pots to invest in learning what different types of interventions work and by how much they change outcomes. We can make creative use of existing assets and space, for instance by experimenting with low cost signage in public spaces to see which messages increase spontaneous social interactions in community spaces, and whether well-intentioned signs like the one below actually reduce the chances that people fell welcomed in their neighbourhood.

  2. Make connection the default
    We typically take the path of least resistance, meaning that defaults can have a disproportionate impact on our decisions. So you shouldn’t be able to go through an entire planning process with only a superficial consideration of how your space will bring people together. Central and local government should use existing momentum (such as renewed commitments in the cross government loneliness strategy or the Neighbourhood Planning process) to explore how we can make social connections the default by including infrastructure like “friendly benches” – shown below in Usk, Monmouthshire – during the design phase.

  3. Adopt premortems during the planning process
    People tend to overestimate the quality of their plans and the likelihood of success – a pitfall known as optimism bias. A huge part of planning is forecasting what an area will be like after development, and all parts of the system are likely to be bullish about potential upsides. Premortems can curb this tendency by requiring groups to imagine a scenario in which a development results in community fracture, and work back to identify why things went wrong.
  4. Make meaningful engagement easy
    Talking about engaging the community is easy, but meaningful engagement is hard. One local consultation we looked at had 92 documents attached, and comments from the public were sought in the format shown below, which provides lots of reasons for people to object, but no prompts for those who are in favour of a development. Forms like these will shape the responses of everyone but the most vehement supporter.

Councils can redesign these consultation forms to make them easier to engage with, and use operational transparency to foster trust and engagement by showing how decisions are shaped by community input. Detroit, Michigan created a tracker showing the progress of their neighbourhood improvement plans, including scheduled work.

Incorporating these ideas into the planning system would help councils to increase meaningful engagement with the system, as well as to build trust. If we used behavioural insights to for social connection at all stages of the planning process, we would be closer to building communities that people want to live in, where social engagement becomes the norm.