Social marketing at the junction of urban planning

At first blush, it feels as though social marketing and urban planning don’t have a lot in common; the former dealing with behaviours and the latter dealing with megatonnes of concrete, steel and glass.  Yet each deal fundamentally with the same thing – people.  And at the junction of the two, there’s something really quite fascinating…

One of the most developed areas of social marketing practice is in health and wellness – nudging behaviours to create positive conditions which keep people well both physically and mentally.

Interventions are many and widespread – PSAs and government sponsored campaigns, nutritional labelling, subtle transmedia stories which bring in a wide range of partners to contribute to an overall narrative designed to create widespread change on a specific issue.

Very few, that I’ve seen however, cross into urban planning.  And yet, there is a growing body of evidence directly linking our health to the places that we live in (this WHO bulletin in advance of World Health Day 2010 provides a helpful synopsis).

You’ll be aware of a New Yorker article,  published last year, which reported on the health benefits (physical and mental) of being in proximity to trees.  It appears that just looking at them can get you out of hospital faster and having more of them on your block increases your general health to a level that you’d normally only experience with a significant salary bump.

Research also suggests that health is adversely impacted by both inequality and poverty.  And in ‘poor areas’, we are less likely to find trees or other green spaces  (additionally there are reports showing that green space pushes up property prices, which may therefore create a vicious cycle for the lower-income households with increasing levels of inequality).

So, if we accept these hypotheses (that poor areas are less healthy and less green), is a cost effective social marketing intervention a tree planting or growing program?  At a meta-level, this could look like a policy intervention where urban planners are encouraged to build pathways and networks through the urban realm which positively promote physical and mental health (on a side note, I adore the sound of the Walkonomics app which actively connects users to mental health boosting journeys).

But what of established cities with their set-down pavements, buried cabling and parking spaces which don’t want to be unpaved to put down paradise, and yet experience high levels of poor health?

In these situations, should we be looking at a tree gifting program for front gardens and porches?  Would containerised trees have the same effect?  Might they also have spin off effects where owners end up talking to their neighbours while they tend them?

The New Yorker article supports the idea that front yard trees have the same effect as sidewalk plantings.  So long as people can see them and walk past them, the positive benefits seem to be there.

Tree gifting feels like an appropriate social marketing intervention for areas of high health need and deprivation – and a simple act which could start to promote sustainable and  positive behaviour change at a community scale.  It would be fascinating to see this attempted in concert with more established behavioural change interventions in trial areas to test the efficacy of the principle (if this has already been done, I would love to find out more.  Please comment below).

Health might not grow on trees, but growing trees might be a good place to start…

My particular interest in this line of enquiry was prompted by a fabulous podcast from Invisible City.  Listen in here on SoundCloud.

Photo discovered on Flickr & used under Creative Commons.

4 responses to “Social marketing at the junction of urban planning

  1. I just spent a couple of days last week with some transportation and urban planners and developers. They wanted to learn more about social marketing. What really intrigued them was what I called “getting away from the maps” and spending more time understanding how people use space and what jobs they are trying to get done. Interestingly, the developers espoused a similar philosophy – it’s not land use, it’s how people use land that drives their plans (admittedly, perhaps some of the more enlightened ones).
    Moving from functional to emotional value also struck a chord – not moving people more efficiently, but giving people experiences they want to be moved by. As a technique, journey mapping also got a lot of people thinking about how they do their research (rather than holding the traditional town hall or deliberative sessions that have become their default. Someone even mentioned that their agency has started doing focus groups, which sounded very innovative to others in the room.
    That said, there’s a lot of marketing that social marketing can impart to these professionals.
    For me, tree gifting is aiming small.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Craig
      Thanks for contributing! I agree about the scale of tree gifting; when writing the post, I was picturing some of the post-industrial terraces in my home town which are static/stable spaces and unable to be redeveloped which led me to wonder about some of the interventions which could be managed when ground-up rebuilding isn’t possible!

      It’s good to hear that the emotional value of spaces struck a chord – I think that some UK planners ‘get’ this, but not always all of them. Building in spaces for intercourse & discourse is important and often practiced, but may of the others I’ve seen have been devoid of greenery or other elements which encourage wellness.

      A more anthropological approach to people and space is a fascinating junction between social marketing & urban planning disciplines. Where do you see this going over the next few years?


  2. I love this Neil. This intersection between social marketing and planning is something I’ve been really thinking about since I interviewed Dr. Danya Rumore for the podcast last year. Looking at it holistically, there is this triangular relationship between communities, the spaces they interact with, and the messages they hear/conversations they have. Our homes, work spaces, retail spaces, and outdoor areas all shape our decisions just as much as the messages we hear. Great write up. Let me know if you want to talk further about this on the podcast.

    Liked by 1 person

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