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Behavioral urban planning: how cities affect our biases

The Greek city-states, the “pòleis”, were designed, starting from the VIII century BC, with the aim of fostering the communal decisions and the sharing of philosophical knowledge. Almost thirty centuries later, our cities do not always seem to be planned to be people-oriented. On the contrary, our urban areas, which are home to more than 55% of the world’s population, are increasingly becoming the hotbed of many critical global issues, such as environmental threats, the perpetuation of poverty and increasing inequality. Still, the places where we live can be redesigned by acknowledging the fundamental teaching of behavioral science: our behavior can be nudged towards a certain direction by changing the environment in which we find ourselves when making our choices. This concept isn’t restricted to simplest purposes, as the exemplificative case of supermarket aisles, but it can, and has to, help bringing long-term changes, and, eventually, a more equitable and sustainable society. 

Knowledge of people has to become one of the expertise involved in urban planning. One of the first advocacies of this approach was in the 60s, from Jan Gehl, a Danish architect who received a wakeup call from his psychologist wife, Ingrid; the couple started looking into how people use public spaces and studied what affects their behavior and interactions. An insightful result of their research on the impact of cities’ design on humans’ psychological rather than merely physical needs, was that for every extra 14 square meters of car-free space, one more person starts participating in public life.

The scientific explanation on how cities can determine our implicit biases is provided by the phenomenon of the Bias of Crowds theorized by Keith Payne. In his article Payne defines implicit bias as “a social phenomenon that passes through the minds of individuals but exists with  greater stability in the situations they inhabit”. He argues that the puzzle emerged by several studies of individual biases being extremely unstable can be solved by adopting the same understanding of the wisdom of the crowd: as the collective judgement of a group tends to be closer to the true answer than any individual answer, testing intergroup implicit bias gives more robust averages than measuring the individual one, which is too sensitive to external signals and hence varies day to day. The underlying idea of this situational rather than individual approach is that implicit bias can be seen as the frequency of stereotypical links made accessible in that context. This mechanism can be explained by some heuristics we are subject to: 

  • the availability effect, the tendency to use information that comes to mind quickly and easily
  • the representativeness effect, a mental shortcut that we use when trying to assess how likely it is that an event or object A belongs to class B: we make the judgement based on how representative we believe A is for B
  • the illusory correlation, we erroneously conjecture that two phenomena which we observed occurring together are correlated
  • the confirmation bias, tendency to interpret and recall information as evidence for our preexisting beliefs

Payne provides the concrete example of a city having highly segregated neighborhoods, mostly poor and minority areas, in which crime is concentrated. In this town you would see mainly White people in ordinary and respectable jobs, while you would hear the local news describe mostly Black or Hispanic criminal suspects, thus accessing to stereotypical links. Supposing that the local government tries to implement trainings aimed at reducing racism in the citizens, these interventions are not likely to bring a structural change that lasts over time, because, as Payne concludes, most of the force of implicit bias comes from situations and environments rather than individual attitudes (something that is not easy to accept for most people who consider themselves open-minded and incapable of having stereotypes).

By the same token, you cannot expect people to change their everyday habits and move anywhere in a sustainable way, as long as they live in cities which were constructed for cars more than for people. Also, there is constant struggle to completely eradicate the stereotypes towards women and reach a point in which women will be seen as respectable, powerful and capable human beings; but how many cities did you visit which had a statue depicting a real woman (not a goddess or a symbol) to celebrate her contribution in society?

Urban planning has to include among its objectives a more diverse representation, the existence of mixed communities, and the participation of citizens in a co-design process (don’t forget the IKEA effect: spaces will be much more valuable to communities who inhabit them if they contributed to their creation).

Behavioral insights on how environmental cues affect citizens will certainly be useful to fulfill the 11th goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.


Payne K. et al., “The Bias of Crowds: How Implicit Bias Bridges Personal and Systemic Prejudice”, Psychological Inquiry, 30 November 2017

Klotz L., “Using Behavioral Science to Redesign the Built Environment”, Behavioral Scientist, 24 August 2017,

The Behavioral Architects, “Using Behavioral Insights to Make Cities More People Friendly”, The Marketing Society,

TEDx Talks, Equity in Architecture | Rosa Sheng | TEDxPhiladelphia,

TEDx Talks, Places and Spaces and the Behavior They Create | Damaris Hollingsworth | TEDxMinneapolis,

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