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  • Michael Mehaffy

How Neighborhood "Choice Architecture" Is Locking Us Into Unsustainable Living Patterns

Insights from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics reveal the hidden controls over our daily choices -- including our ability to choose a healthy and livable neighborhood. But there's an alternative path.

ABOVE: Two very different neighborhood structures, offering us very different "choice architectures"... largely pre-determining whether we can choose to walk, bike, eat healthy food, or make many other choices.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a discussion topic for the upcoming International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference in Cortona, Italy, October 29-November 1, 2024.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions per capita -- the emissions that are driving destructive changes to the climate, and related problems of air pollution -- all settlements are not equal.

In fact, the average US settlement -- typically car-dependent and sprawling -- has per-capital emissions over six times higher than those of more walkable cities like Stockholm, Sweden.

ABOVE: The greenhouse gas emissions rates per person vary greatly between countries, and between cities and their national averages. This is because national averages combine more car-dependent suburban and rural rates. There are other factors related to urban form as well including behavioral influences. (Note: Shown here are consumption-based rates, i.e. at the endpoint of consumption, rather than rates generated by the creation of products like oil and steel.)

What could account for such a large magnitude of variation? Are average US residents six times wealthier? No, in fact, Stockholm residents have nearly identical per capita income (about $70,000 as of 2021). Are average US residents six times happier than Stockholm residents? No, according to the World Happiness Report, a compilation of surveys by Gallup and the University of Oxford, Sweden ranks fourth in the world, while the US ranks 24th. Rates of suicide are also higher in the US, and other indicators of mental health are about the same or lower in the US.

Other factors also have little explanatory power. The climate in Stockholm is certainly not milder than in the average US settlement, and cultural differences are not significant enough to explain such a large magnitude. Energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, though at higher levels in Sweden than the US, are far from significant enough to explain such a large magnitude.

The evidence suggests that Americans are only six times more wasteful of resources -- and producing six times more greenhouse gas emissions -- than Stockholm residents. Put differently, Americans are one-sixth as efficient as Stockholm residents at maintaining a given level of happiness and well-being.

What are the specific factors that account for this disparity? The largest explanatory factor is urban form: Stockholm's is more compact, more walkable, with more varied destinations close by, and with more transportation choices. That means it's easier and more efficient to get around. The public realm -- streets, parks, and squares, as well as nearby "third places" -- also offers more generous options, meaning that people can live in smaller and more compact homes, and still not feel too confined.

There is yet another factor -- and it turns out to be a major one. The forms of our settlements turn out to have a "multiplier effect" on our increased consumption patterns. If we own a car and are dependent on it for travel, we may find ourselves living an even more high-consumption "drive-through lifestyle" than the use of the car alone would suggest. We may use more drive-through restaurants, often relying more on meat products, large amounts of packaging, and other high resource consumption goods. We may be more likely to buy more discretionary goods at farther-away big-box stores -- especially if we need to fill our larger, more isolated suburban homes with more food and entertainment goods than we might need otherwise.

By comparison, if we lived in, say, Amsterdam (shown in the photo at the top right of this post), we might easily walk or bike to our daily destinations, or take transit to farther destinations, and conveniently stop off at one of many fresh food markets. We might not miss a larger home with higher levels of consumption, since we could easily choose to spend time outdoors in public spaces and adjacent "third places," and more easily choose to consume fewer resources while still enjoying a high quality of life.

All of these variables are related to a dawning new understanding of how consumption patterns are shaped in advance by the limited and pre-structured choices of our daily experience -- the "choice architectures" of our environments. One kind of choice architecture may produce one kind of consumption pattern, while another may result in a very different pattern.

This is an example of one of the most notable findings of so-called "behavioral economics," giving us a much deeper understanding of how human psychology affects economic life. These findings have been applied to consumer behavior, stock market dynamics, retirement savings decisions, and many other choice patterns that often don't conform to the "rational" expectations of economists.

Gone is the picture from classical economics of the perfectly rational economic human being, who always makes the optimum decision based on price and need. Instead, we now see the limited capacity of human beings to understand and make rational choices amidst the distractions of daily life -- what the psychologists call "bounded rationality." We don't have an infinite number of choices, nor do we have an infinite capacity to evaluate them. Often our choices are pre-determined to a limited set ahead of time. If we live in American sprawl, we will most likely consume much more, regardless of what we might wish for ourselves or our world.

Product marketers know this phenomenon very well, and they exploit it masterfully. The big-box store expertly positions the candy at eye level as we approach the checkout stand -- all too easy to select, and all too difficult to resist. Or they position a product they especially want to sell adjacent to a much more expensive product, making the cheaper product seem even more like a bargain. Or they offer multiple similar products -- ten different kinds of corn flakes, say -- giving us the illusion of choice but not a meaningful range of choices. These are just several examples of "choice architecture" in practice.

The same phenomenon occurs at the level of a neighborhood. We might more easily choose to drive, since, say, the roads are wide and driving is convenient. It's much harder to walk or take the bus, because, perhaps, the sidewalks are narrow, the buses are infrequent, the path is unattractive, and the trip is unpleasant. We can easily choose a larger home with excess space, while a smaller home with an elegant and well-planned layout may be much harder to find. And so on.

All of this translates into generally larger homes than are necessary for a satisfying life, more driving, and especially, very different consumption and emissions patterns.

Crucially, all of these choices are largely made for us in advance, mostly bypassing our own opportunity to evaluate and choose rationally from a wider set of options. Moreover, all of them work together to amplify one another, and they magnify our levels of consumption. This phenomenon goes a long way to explaining the dramatic magnitude of difference in resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions between the average US settlement and, say -- in spite of a comparably high standard of living -- a place like Stockholm.

If a livable neighborhood structure similar to those in Stockholm or Amsterdam might be a viable and appealing choice for many of us, why then don't more of us choose something like it? Very simply, it's not part of our choice architecture, particularly in most parts of the USA. Very few of us actually have the choice to live in a place like that, simply because there are so few places like it where we need to be -- near our jobs, our families, or our current situations. The choice architecture of our neighborhoods has been pre-selected for us -- most often car-dependent, consumer-oriented, standard-issue "modern" suburbs.

This is because there is another form of choice architecture at work: the set of choices available to developers, politicians and planning and design professionals, who are also equally "locked in" to pre-defined and pre-limited options. Deviating from this standard "industry choice architecture" is difficult and risky, and it's safer and more profitable to stay with the usual "modern" (sprawling and high-consumption) forms of development.

But the lesson of choice architecture is not that we don't have choices, but that we have to step back and make choices at another, more fundamental level. Instead of waiting for consumers or professionals to make different choices out of high-mindedness, we need to change the choice architecture itself. We need to change the models, standards, codes, incentives and disincentives, that pre-determine what is profitable, what is easy, and what is likely, when it comes to neighborhood development and redevelopment.

In particular, we need to clarify what are the alternatives for urban development, and what are the costs and benefits; and then we need to translate those costs and benefits into penalties and rewards, creating alternative choice architectures. Sprawling development must pay for its true costs to human and planetary well-being; and more compact, walkable, diverse forms of development must be rewarded. These incentives and disincentives might take the form of tax policies, design codes, design standards, grants, funding mechanisms, or the many other existing and new tools that can shape a more livable, more sustainable form of urbanism. We have many existing models all around us, and with a bit of modern retrofitting, they are appealing and livable. What is at stake is not just lessening our ecological impacts, but also improving the ability of our settlements to deliver quality of life for all.

If we are to be well in the future, we will need a different "choice architecture" for those who choose to build and rebuild our world.



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