Earlier this year myself and another neighbour started an initiative in our neighbourhood. The idea was pretty simple – we wanted to close the road for an hour a month to let residents come out and enjoy the open space. It is not a new initiative by any stretch of the imagination – it is a grass roots initiative called Playing Out which has its roots in Bristol, UK. Although the road is closed temporarily residents still have full access to the road, they can drive in but need to drive behind a steward.
It is a pretty simple idea and yet has produced some incredible results. Having grown up pretty much outdoors with lots of neighbours around me and on the road I am keen that my neighbourhood benefits a similar sense of freedom. The importance of getting people outdoors and engaged with each other can’t be underestimated. This is especially true with the obesity levels found in children nowadays. But in an age where there are so many digital entertainment alternatives this can be a challenge. Don't get me wrong - I love digital but I also think it has its place.
It wasn’t easy and we spent months helping our council setup their Playing Out policy. We also had to engage neighbours by door knocking and leafleting. Most neighbours thought it was a brilliant idea and really came out and supported us.
From a UX perspective I could not help but take a more analytical perspective. My ambition was to encourage outdoor neighbourhood behaviour. If we look at Dr. BJ Fogg’s Behavioural Model we can see that for behaviour to change one needs the combination of motivation, ability and triggers.
In the model we see that the core motivators tend to be Sensation, Anticipation and Belonging. Meeting new neighbours and allowing children to play I believe has a pretty pleasurable Sensation and one can imagine that the inconvenience of not being able to drive your car very fast down the road might be a little painful. It slows down your day but I think the pleasure of a closer community outweighs pain.
Anticipation is also pretty good for this activity. There is hope of meeting new neighbours and making new friends. Of course there is always a danger that you may meet a neighbour that you don’t like but you can always just move onto the next one.
Belonging is a key motivator for this activity. The sense of belonging created by this activity is very high and it creates a strong sense of community cohesion.
So looking at the breakdown we have a pretty high motivation for this activity to take place and be successful.
Do people have the ability to do the task, in this case coming out to meet each other and play? I think people do have the ability but it is not simple. Neighbours are not coordinated – you could come out at 4pm and see who was on the road but it’s likely that you won’t find anybody. What we needed to do is to “make the target behaviour easier to do” as Dr. Fogg points out. In this case we needed a coordinated time for this to happen.
The other problem is that the road itself is not safe with quite a few cars driving up and down. This hinders children’s ability to play reducing the space available for neighbours to meet. Of course they could all go into someone’s back garden but this immediately gives ownership of the event to one specific person. Having a “public” venue makes it accessible to all and gives everyone the opportunity to drop in and out as they wish.
A trigger could be as simple as knocking on each other’s door and inviting people out. This can be quite daunting if you do not know somebody well enough – will they be glad to meet you or will they be annoyed that you are interrupting their day? So having a trigger such as a community event or an allocated time is essential to enabling this behaviour.
So what happened?
Playing Out simplifies the ability of neighbours to come out and meet one another. It also provides a trigger as times and dates are publicised well in advance. Volunteer stewards are required for each event so this naturally brings people out. All our events have been well attended and neighbours have been very creative in how they engaged. We have had a range of activities including the usual bike riding but also tennis, basketball, chalking and badminton! We have met a number of elderly people who happened to stroll out and had a chat. Older neighbours have brought their grandchildren along and neighbours in wheelchairs have enjoyed using the road rather than the very narrow sidewalk. Some kids have setup shop during some of the sessions selling some of their old toys to their friends. Most importantly we have got to know neighbours we didn’t know very well. I also noted that my kids were keen to go out and find friends over the summer months. We had a mini-Wimbledon event down our road over the summer months.
So yes a very simple idea is encouraging behaviour change in our neighbourhood. It won’t happen overnight but we are starting to see the benefits of enabling a trigger which therefore encourages behavioural change.