Civic Pride, Social Inclusion, And A Sense Of Belonging – The Main Ingredients For Sustainable Cities

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Civic Pride, Social Inclusion, And A Sense Of Belonging – The Main Ingredients For Sustainable Cities

Category:Behavior Change,Environmental Psychology,Livable Cities,Petra Hurtado,Sustainable Cities Tags : 

Author: Petra Hurtado

Can we call a building sustainable only because it is LEED-certified, without taking into consideration that people who live in the building are constantly leaving the lights on and are wasting gallons of water every day? And how sustainable is a city that offers the most extensive public transit and bike lane networks if most of its people are still driving to work? Cities have been developing climate action agendas and sustainability strategies trying to combat environmental pollution, minimize GHG emissions, and conserve natural resources. However, strategies such as the implementation of public transit systems in the transportation sector or the construction of “green buildings” in the building sector are not always successful. Building public transit systems doesn’t guarantee that people really use them and drive less.[1] Designing energy-efficient buildings doesn’t guarantee that the occupants use less energy than in a conventional building.[2]

“In trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best. We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology.”[3] Yet, the technical solution alone doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. As pointed out already in many other Urban Breezes articles, when it comes to sustainable solutions it’s all about the users, the people who live or work in the LEED-certified building and the people who live, work, and play in the city. If they don’t behave in sustainable ways, the most sustainable technologies won’t produce the necessary change.

In the 5  A Planning Approach project, I elaborated on how sustainable technologies can be implemented more successfully by integrating five factors of behavior change into urban planning processes: Sustainable options must be AVAILABLE, ATTRACTIVE, AFFORDABLE, and ACCESSIBLE for everyone and create the AWARENESS of the benefits of using them. The Smart People-Based Planning project, however, goes one step further, asking the question: do we actually need the technical solution or  are there other ways to not just solve the “technical” problem of unsustainability but to solve the root causes of it. Conventional planning approaches focus too much on the technical causes of unsustainable developments and ignore the root causes of unsustainable user behavior. The “success of an urban sustainability project doesn’t only depend on its technical design and its technical feasibility; it mainly depends on the preferences, needs, and behavior of its users.”[4]

Conventional planning approaches don’t take into consideration that people don’t behave unsustainably just to behave unsustainably. Ignoring the root causes of the problem (e.g. why do I have to drive from A to B?) and plainly focusing on the symptoms (e.g. GHG emissions) is only a short-term solution that may result in new problems in the future. Obviously, we are facing a missing link between plan and reality, with the main issue being the change of how people live. What we want to achieve is to prevent unsustainable behavior by offering alternatives that are attractive enough for people to change. However, those alternatives are not necessarily linked to what seems to be the problem in the first place. People don’t waste energy just to waste it. Neither do they drive just to drive or generate greenhouse gas emissions (in most cases, at least). As planners, we are dealing with “ordinary people doing ordinary things, rather than villainous or greedy people doing especially nasty things.”[5] People just want to live their lives and get their things done in the most convenient manner. The question therefore is: How can we ensure everyone can get their things done in sustainable ways?

First, it is important to know that “values towards environment and nature are the core factor that can make people more aware and willing to choose for sustainable options.”[6] However, according to a study on water conservation behavior conducted by the University of Sonora in Mexico and the University of Arizona in the U.S., “general environmental beliefs were not good direct predictors of the specific water-consumption behavior.” Hence, we need to find a way for people to appreciate the things that are benefitting from sustainable behavior in their direct surroundings such as their own quality of life and their personal health. A person who likes to swim in Lake Michigan, might understand the need for water conservation and protection better than the person who prefers watching TV all day. On the other hand, the TV-watcher might be more interested in spending time outside, if there was an attractive park or natural area close to their home.

However, according to B.F. Skinner, “environmental knowledge doesn’t correlate with environmental action”[7]. Even though people know they should recycle, use less water, and turn off the light when leaving the house, they don’t do it. “Therefore, Barr (2007) added two more factors to the equation that influence the choice of sustainable behavior: personal situational variables such as sociodemographic, individual knowledge and experience (enablers or disablers for sustainable behavior) and psychological factors such as personality characteristics and perception toward environmental actions (motivators and barriers for sustainable behavior)”[8].

Hence, we need an approach that educates people on the value of the natural environment and the benefits of sustainable lifestyles that simultaneously takes into account the situational variables of the people whose behavior shall change and their perception towards environmental actions.

This idea brought me to the two Colombian cities Bogota and Medellin, where similar approaches had been successfully applied in the field of crime prevention in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Instead of focusing on the problems of traffic violations, robberies, and people killing each other by sending more police force into the streets, the three mayors, Antanas Mockus (mayor of Bogota, 1995 – 1997 and 2001 – 2003), Enrique Peñalosa (mayor of Bogotá, 1998 – 2001 and 2016 – 2019), and Sergio Fajardo (mayor of Medellin, 2004 – 2008) focused on the root causes of crime and unlawful behavior. Assuming that people don’t cross red lights just to cross red lights, and that people don’t rob or kill each other just to rob or kill each other, they investigated the root causes of those actions and created conditions that changed people’s behavior towards legal and peaceful actions. In Medellin, Mayor Fajardo and his team, for example, assessed the conditions of the city by walking around the city, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, and talking to the community. They learned the root causes of the crime problem ranged from issues such as a lack of education and insufficient access to jobs, to issues such as inequality and “a lack of shared values [resulting in] absence of respect for other people’s lives and disregard for the law”[10]

With his Plan of District Development, “Formar Ciudad” (Educate the City), and the Cultura Ciudadana program, Mayor Mockus wanted to transform the attitude of Bogota’s citizens towards their city and their communities by creating “a sense of belonging to [the] city”[11] and “a new urban culture based on mutual respect between citizens through educational programs”.[12] He defined this culture of citizenship as “the sum of habits, behaviors, actions and minimum common rules that generate a sense of belonging, facilitate harmony among citizens, and lead to respect for shared property and heritage and the recognition of citizens’ rights and duties.” Mayor Mockus used educational programs and gamification “to establish a culture of ‘self-regulation”. Actions ranged from shaming people for bad behavior, for example, by distributing red cards among citizens (as used in soccer) to “show approval or disapproval of actions”; to the establishment of mimes at pedestrian crossings to force drivers to stop at red lights, among many other informative tactics.

Mayor Mockus’s work was continued by Mayor Peñalosa, whose priority was (and still is) to create a “happy city”: “’We might not be able to make everyone as rich as Americans. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier.’“[13] For Mayor Peñalosa, “parks and other pedestrian places are essential to a city’s happiness. […] – he equated the importance of pedestrian public spaces to fundamental things in life such as friendship, beauty, love and loyalty.”[14] By strategically locating public spaces and providing access to them through public infrastructure (such as public transit and bike lanes), Mayor Peñalosa created a “right to the city”. Public spaces allowed the community to come together, build new relationships, and appreciate and respect each other’s lives.

Jazz al Parque in Bogota ©Petra Hurtado

In Medellin, Mayor Fajardo focused on two root causes of criminal behavior: inequality due to a lack of access to the city and the lack of education. Medellin’s comunas, the poorest and most violent neighborhoods of the city, are located in the mountainous outskirts of the city. Walking from some of the comunas to the city center, where most of the jobs were, took up to 2 hours, which resulted in a daily 4-hour commute for some people. Fajardo focused on making jobs accessible and creating civic pride through urban design and transformation using “public spaces and infrastructure as means of socio-economic inclusion.”[15]. The construction of cable cars as means of public transportation enabled people from the comunas to access jobs in the city. Library parks resulted in better education combined with community engagement and relationship building.

Medellin’s Metrocable ©Petra Hurtado

The results were tremendous in both cities. Homicide rates dropped by over 50% and two of the most violent cities in the world were transformed into two showcases for sustainable urban development.

If the Colombian approaches can be successful in the fight against crime and violence by changing people’s behavior towards peaceful and legal actions (based on the root causes of unlawful behavior), I suggest they can also be successful in the fight against environmental pollution by changing people’s behavior towards sustainable actions (based on the root causes of unsustainable behavior). People know that crossing a red light is unlawful, but they still do it due to certain root causes. The same applies to environmental behavior. Environmental knowledge does not correlate with environmental action.[16] People don’t act out of rationality; they act due to personal root causes and preferences such as comfort, social prestige, fear, or time restrictions. Most decisions we make throughout the day are based on emotions and not on rationality.[17]

In Colombia, those three mayors found ways to change people’s behavior and motivate them to be more respectful of each other. When it comes to environmental protection and sustainable cities, we have to find ways to change people’s behavior and motivate them to be more respectful of nature and the environment. Hence, we need to understand what the mechanisms are that regulate people’s actions and their behavior.

Parque Biblioteca de España in Medellín (Spain Library Park) ©Petra Hurtado

According to the Actively Caring Model[18], for environmental or sustainable behavior, factors such as a sense of belonging and civic pride play an important role as well. Trying to enforce a desired behavior through penalties and regulations is usually not as successful as is the empowerment of the ones who shall change and positive reinforcement for their actions. The latter results in a sustainable change of how people live their lives. Bogota and Medellin didn’t succeed by putting more police force in the streets for negative reinforcement. They succeeded by empowering their citizens and creating pride and respect for each other.

An approach that empowers citizens to care for their community, that creates a sense of belonging and pride of where they live, and furthermore creates the needed respect for the natural environment in their city/region/country may be the solution for a behavior change towards more sustainability. A planning approach that is focused on people and addresses the root causes of behavior will contribute to more sustainable choices in people’s everyday lives and lay the foundation for truly sustainable cities, not by changing technologies, but by changing how people live and respect their surroundings.



[1] Stieninger, P. (2013): Changing Human Behavior towards Energy Saving through Urban Planning. Creation of a new Planning Approach. Lessons learned from Europe and North America, LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing

[2] Turner, C., & Frankel, M. (2008). Energy performance of LEED for new construction buildings, New Buildings Institute

[3] Skinner, B.F. (1971): Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

[4] Stieninger Hurtado P. (2018): From Sustainable Cities to Sustainable People—Changing Behavior Towards Sustainability with the Five A Planning Approach. In: Leal Filho W., Marans R., Callewaert J. (eds) Handbook of Sustainability and Social Science Research. World Sustainability Series. Springer, Cham.

[5] Gardener, G.T./Stern, P.C. (2002): Environmental Problems and Human Behavior2, Pearson Custom Publishing

[6] Barr, S. (2007): Factors Influencing Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors. A UK Case Study of Household Waste Management. Environment and Behavior, 39(4), 435-473

[7] Stieninger, P. (2013): Changing Human Behavior towards Energy Saving through Urban Planning. Creation of a new Planning Approach. Lessons learned from Europe and North America, LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing

[8] Barr, S. (2007): Factors Influencing Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors. A UK Case Study of Household Waste Management. Environment and Behavior, 39(4), 435-473

[10] Riaño, Y. Addressing Urban Fear and Violence in Bogotá through the ‘Culture of Citizenship’: Scope and Challenges of a Unique Approach, In: Butler, M./Gurr, J.M./Kaltmeier, O. (eds). EthniCities: Metropolitan Cultures and Ethnic Identities in the Americas. Bilingual Review Press (Arizona State University) and Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier (WVT), p. 209-226

[11] McGuirk (2014): Radical Cities, Verso

[12] Montezuma, R. (2005): The Transformation of Bogota, Colombia, 1995-2000: Investing in citizenship and urban mobility; in: Global Urban Development, Vol. 1, Issue 1 May 2005 (translated from Spanish by Jonas Hagen)

[13] Montgomery, C. (2013): Happy City. Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

[14] Berney, R. (2006): Constructing the Sustainable City: Emerging Public Open Spaces in Bogotá, Colombia, CSLA/CELA 2006 Conference

[15] Sanin, F./Cruz, T./Forman, F. (2014): Medellin: Vida y Ciudad. 10 Recorridos, RM Verlag

[16] Skinner, B. F. (1987). Upon further reflection. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

[17] Praschl, M. et al. (1994): Gute Vorsätze und Realität: Die Diskrepanz zwischen Wissen und Handeln am Beispiel Verkehrsmittelwahl. BMFJ

[18] Geller, E.S. (1995): Integrating Behaviorism and Humanism for Environmental Protection, Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 51, No.4, 1995, 179-195