likely to choose biking over driving. The key is to design spaces
where such behaviors are easy and automatic, says Hipp. “It’s
about making these things the default choice.”
The same principle applies to creating communities that
promote public health. With obesity rates at crisis levels in
countries around the world, many psychologists are studying
ways to make neighborhoods healthier. Promoting physical
activity is a good first step.
“Urban sprawl is significantly correlated with inactivity and
obesity,” Stokols says. But neighborhoods can be designed to be
more walkable by adding sidewalks and bike lanes, shops and
amenities near residential areas, and natural features like parks
Other seemingly small design elements can lead to lasting
changes in behavior, as Hipp and colleagues learned in a
study of Washington, D.C., commuters (American Journal of
Preventive Medicine, 2013). With data from city webcams,
his team compared how many people biked in particular
intersections before and after the city added protected bike
lanes. Unsurprisingly, people were more likely to bike after the
additions. The surprise was that weather no longer seemed
to deter riders. Before the lanes were added, bike ridership
dropped off dramatically in bad weather. But after the
additions, people were as likely to ride on rainy days as when
the sun was shining.
By making it easier and safer for people to commute by
bicycle, it became part of their daily routine, Hipp says. “That’s
the goal. You design environments in such a way that the default
option is the healthy, easy option.”
Designing for human nature can encompass everything from
the shape of a table to the layout of entire cities, says Augustin.
And those designs may influence behavior in surprising
ways. Consider Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the nucleus of the 2011
Egyptian revolution, as well as protests in 2012 and 2013. “It
works out to be a good place for people to gather to express
their views because of the shape of the square and the way
streets run into it,” Augustin says.
Knowing that, future designers might “design for
democracy” by creating similar gathering spaces, while
governments that wish to suppress such activity could choose to
According to the United Nations, about 85 percent
of Americans will live in urban areas by 2020, rising to
approximately 90 percent by 2050. This pattern is repeating
itself around the globe. “The city is important because that’s
where most of humanity lives,” Ballard says.
In rapidly developing countries such as China, entire cities
are being built from scratch. Designers and architects now
have the ability to create places that build sustainability into
the system and promote residents’ health and well-being from
the ground up. The danger in that, says Ballard, is that cultural
differences can get lost in the process. “Because the future city is
a global marketplace, there isn’t a lot of cultural distinctiveness.
There isn’t a lot of attention being paid now to the cultural
context or the history or practices of the inhabitants as the
design takes shape,” she says.
Another concern is that the virtual bricks are being laid
Stokols, too, sees a need for more input from experts on the
before anyone fully considers how best people interact with
the technology. “The issue is that technology is driving design,”
Ballard says. “I think we need to determine first what kind of
societies we want to create. We need to have a very clear vision
about what’s important, and what our goals are.”
Psychologists can help flesh out those goals, she says — but
first they need a seat at the drawing board. “I think we’re almost
absent in the [design] process. We need to step up and make
clear what we have to offer across the range of psychological
knowledge. Engineers and policymakers and architects
obviously assume knowledge about people, but psychological
knowledge is not lay knowledge,” she says.
human mind. “I think many design decisions go on without any
psychological input or any behavioral perspective at all,” he says.
Yet he’s hopeful that’s changing. “There’s a lot of activity,
not just doing research but also translating it into effective
community interventions,” Stokols says, such as installing plants
and artwork in health-care settings to enhance their restorative
ability and designing neighborhoods to reduce community
crime or to encourage greater physical activity among residents.
“Having watched this field evolve over 40-plus years, I’m pretty
excited about where it’s been, but also about where it’s going.” n
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.
Veitch has found that
control over their work
lighting enhances their
commitment to their
organizations and their
overall job satisfaction.