Are some streets kinder than others? A social test in Seattle

by Charles Montgomery on

How does the built environment influence how feel and behave? Our collaborators at Futurewise agreed that this is an important question for cities like Seattle, which has experienced rapid redevelopment of its core neighbourhoods in the last few years. The city has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build happiness into–or out of–these places.

Historical studies have suggested that the design and programming of street edges can either draw people or repel them. But can design change the way we treat each other? Happy City partnered with Futurewise to find out.

Seattle Facade Option Collage PP size

We surveyed people and building facades like the ones above. We observed pedestrian movements. But we also used volunteers posing as lost tourists to test levels of altruism among passers-by in various environments. What we found was remarkable:

People felt higher levels of trust in strangers along active street edges: places with a variety of fine-grained businesses, small shops and services than did along blank, inactive street edges. But they were also more helpful to strangers in these environments. Passers-by were more likely to approach and offer assistance to our ‘lost tourists.’ They were more likely to lend their cel phones to strangers. They were more likely to actually offer to lead our volunteers to their destination.

The takeaway: we may be able to design pro-social behaviour into the urban environment. So it’s not enough to promote mixed-use in core neighbourhoods. We also need to promote fine-grained, active and social street edges. And, of course, we need to keep experimenting.

Read the Editable Urbanism Report (PDF: 42MB)