Hedonistic Urbanism: Connecting Self-Interest and Societal Good for Life Saving Streets

Christopher Martin
10 May 2020

Christopher Martin reflects on the potential impact of COVID-19 on urban futures, which should provide food for thought for built environment academics and practitioners alike.

Cities have seen – and beaten – a number of public health crises over the years, most notably the 1665 London Great Plague which Samuel Pepys describes in detail in his diary. Indeed, I have been reflecting on some entries describing the increasing fear of the Sickenesse in the City,” the deserted streets, the melancholy from being locked away from society, and the influx of fake news remedies — including purifying the air by smoking tobacco — with interest. How far we have come – in some respects – yet how little time has passed for us as a species, that we can draw parallels in our reactions so easily.

We have heard so much over the last few weeks about what COVID-19 means for cities; the way we will live, the way we will move, and the way we will work. Nobody has the answer right now of course, but I would suggest that we can be sure of one thing. The world will not be the same on the other side of this coronavirus. Like it or not, we have all had new experiences, that will shape our behaviour, and which will go on to alter our culture. The point we should be focusing on is not what will things be like afterwards - but how do we get the future right?

Figure 1: The New Normal for street space assignment.

The immediate solution to this crises in cities – to my mind – is ‘space’, and this seems to be a recurring factor; more space for people to walk and cycle safely; more space for people in dwellings; more outside space in development; and more space to grow one’s own food in cities. Space is going to be the commodity that we consider more carefully following this crisis, I hope, and this is something that I have been calling for, for some time. Essentially, how do we use the space we have, to tackle the crises we face?

Figure 2: Space will to make walking and cycling the instinctive choice

And with this, I do not simply refer to the immediate crisis of COVID-19, because we are very good at solving immediate crises that we can see. Climate Change will arguably have a far more devastating effect on cities and on our lives, but the Climate Emergency is the world’s least exciting pandemic, and so evokes a very different attitude in governments and in broader society. In so many places it has become the norm, not least because it discriminates and the people who can shout loudest are least affected. The pain is most acute if you live in a less affluent country, and then more so if you are living in poverty. Alongside this, one of the biggest failings of the Climate Emergency movement is telling people that we are trying to save the planet, when indeed the message should be — like in coronavirus messaging — that we are trying to save our own lives, those of our loved ones, and those of the vulnerable.

This current pandemic does not discriminate. It does not recognise borders, it does not recognise wealth, and it does not recognise status or background. This is potentially a contributing factor as to why it has been met with an outsized restraint, and with the willing sacrifice of income, opportunity, and ego. The reward of this collective action has been more considered, relaxing, and accommodating places: places where community mindedness has flourished, places where nature has started to (re)enter, and places that value the local experience.

All very lovely, but birdsong and blue skies are limited compensation for a crumbling economy and hundreds of thousands dead worldwide; but we have to learn from this immediate health crisis, and let it inform our response to the deeper emergency of the emerging environmental crisis which has the ability to cause yet more and yet deeper suffering. Coronavirus and the Climate Emergency are linked as I see it, with a growing body of evidence connecting the places that have been hurt the most, with the places with the highest levels of lung damaging air - and the longer we leave this unchecked, the more pain we could see in these places.

Now, coming back to the idea of space: during this crisis we need to quickly roll out ‘COVID Safe Streets’ as I have come to term them – offering people walking, cycling, and indeed queuing, more space to do so safely and whilst keeping physical distance. Which leads me to an interesting aside, about ‘Social Distancing’: I suggest we stop using the term ‘Social Distancing’ as what we need to enable is Physical Distancing. Human beings are social creatures and in these times of reduced physical contact – socially – we have to be closer than ever whilst remaining physically distant.

Now I have that off my chest, we must continue to roll out COVID Safe Streets; but when we are over the worst of this crisis we cannot allow people to slip into old habits. Virus or not, we need our streets to become the ‘Climate Safe Streets’ to protect us from the looming crisis of climate change.

Again this comes down to ‘space’, and how we want to use it. For one, we need streets that will incubate our wilting economy. To paraphrase a deputy Mayor of Milan, if everybody drives a car, there is no space for people to move and enjoy the city, and there is no space for commercial activities outside shops, bars and restaurants – which are and very much will be a valuable part of the economy when Lockdown is lifted. We need to reopen the economy, but we should do it on a different basis from before.

We also need streets that will enable and inspire people to carry on walking and cycling for that trip that they used to jump in the car for, because of the climate – of course – but  also because of that sense of community that we have built, worked hard for, and enjoyed in recent weeks.

To achieve this, the path is simple. On the first day back to work for the majority of people, we will travel there by the easiest and most inviting and convenient mode possible. My job is to make that choice the one that is best for the planet, best for society, and best for you! To achieve this I apply my theory of Hedonistic Urbanism to urban design and transport projects. We do so much because it gives us joy and we find it fun – even some things we might look back on and cringe at – but we do them because it gave us pleasure, and human beings thrive on pleasure.

Figure 3: Children calling for space to play on residential streets

Hedonistic Urbanism understands this, and understands that if we are to get people to change their behaviours, we have to offer an inviting alternative – as people normally have reasons for behaving the way they do, and it is these behaviours that are, in essence, the result of an environment which has invited us to act in certain ways. This reflects the fact that places shape our behaviour, and that behaviour over time becomes culture: the way we do things.

Moreover, where people have lived in places in which the space between buildings has been conformed to the commodity of the car for a long time, their behaviours have been shaped accordingly, with the result that this way of life is now viewed by many as their culture. These engrained habits make the issue of changing behaviours a great deal more challenging, as people do not see ‘improvements’ and urban design and transport schemes as making cities better and trying to tackle crises; they see them instead as an attack on what they are used to, indeed as an attack on their culture – and this is where Hedonistic Urbanism is so valuable.

One thing to understand first, is that a general “Law of Least Effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefit and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature. Now, as designers I believe it is our gift and responsibility to focus our attention and expertise globally – harnessing design – to tackle the most pressing urban crises of the day. Such as climate emergency to name ‘the’ one.

In applying Hedonistic Urbanism to influence behaviour, we have to understand the ‘law of least effort’ and marry self-interest with societal good. An interesting example of using design to influence behaviour and solve urban crises comes from Stockholm. The city wanted people to drive slower, and we all know the benefits of controlling vehicles speeds in urban areas. To get people to do this, they didnt employ the usual ways of working – such as speed bumps, other traditional methods of traffic engineering, or promotional or advertising initiatives. Instead, they understood that they were not trying to slow down vehicles, but rather trying to get those who were driving to do so more slowly. With this understanding, it was easier to achieve results, as they were able to target human behaviour. The city installed radar cameras to measure the speed of vehicles, which is common enough. However, while drivers travelling above the speed limit were issued with an automatic fine, those below the speed limit were entered into a lottery for a chance to win a portion of the fines from the speeders (up to $3000). With this, average speeds fell from 32km/h to 25 km/h. Before the project, people were clearly acting in their self-interest and driving at a speed they considered more beneficial to them, irrespective of the others around them. Following the scheme, it was in most people’s personal interest to act in a way that was better for all – and consequently they did so.

Hedonistic Urbanism understands that people often act in their own self-interest, but aims to marry self-interest with societal good by developing urban interventions that compel people naturally to choose what is best for the city, best for society, and best for them – by making what’s best, the easiest, most enjoyable, and most fun option. With this, we don’t get parallel behaviour change programmes, we get people queuing up to do good.

We need more people to walk, cycle, and take mass transit in cities going forward. We need this because it is space efficient, beneficial to our health, good for air quality, good for the environment and climate, best for the economy, and because it is more convivial, social, and human.

So with this, we need to take space on streets to allow people to be safe for COVID Safe Streets, but then we need to use this space to make your journey to work on Day One of ‘Normal Life 2.0’ an absolutely joy, if, you choose to make that trip in a way that benefits others, yourself, and society as a whole. If we can achieve this, then we will have our Climate Safe Streets.

Christopher Martin is Co-Founder and Director of Urban Strategy at Urban Movement; is a Trustee of Living Streets and a member of UN Habitat Planning and Climate Action Group and Executive Committee of the Urban Design Group.


As ever we welcome further Built Environment blogs & tweets on this theme!    

All Images © author. All rights reserved