Preventive action best for a tidy public realm

Local authorities’ practice of "cleaning up after others" must be replaced with a preventive, behavioural-change approach to keeping the public realm tidy, according to a new Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) report.

With further looming cuts likely to see remaining funds diverted to critical services such as health and social care, "dirty streets and barren parks" will become the reality for many councils unless changes can be made, the report warns.

But that presents a problem because despite what most of us think people are not rational and councils’ misguided attempts to reason with people to change their behaviour through rewards, fines and education does not really work.

Park Life, Street Life: Reducing Demand in the Public Realm is a collaboration between APSE and NGLN. It drew on data from a range of sources including APSE’s State of the Market survey and in-depth case study interviews with councils that have trialled or adopted behaviour-change strategies.

A focus on enforcement can often be down to political pressure, where councillors feel they should be seen to be "doing something" such as fining dog foulers, even when the strategy may not be effective. Sometimes it may even make the problem worse — evidence from one study suggests "no smoking" signs can subconsciously make nicotine addicts want to smoke more.

Instead, parks departments should be applying the lessons of behavioural psychology. These strategies are used to good effect by retailers to nudge customers to subconsciously shop more. The report suggests two main changes to public behaviour that would benefit parks.

"The first of these involves moving from cleaning up after people to preventing littering and other similarly antisocial behaviours from happening in the first place. The second involves embracing, allowing and encouraging far greater contributions from local people to the upkeep of their local public realm spaces.

"In practice this means residents treating their surroundings with respect and care, and for councils to be nudging them in this direction through careful consideration of communications and of matters such as the design of bins.

"It means new expectations to be placed on businesses about how they contribute to their local environments and new ways for them to contribute. It also means harnessing and respecting the passion and determination that committed community organisations and residents across the UK feel towards their local areas through new forms of local involvement."

APSE’s research found that while some councils are forging ahead in these areas, many more are failing to use the behavioural tools at hand. "Smart" and "bold" approaches to community engagement are also lacking. Only rarely do councils look beyond public consultation and actually have "wholesale initiatives" that would encourage local people, businesses and institutions to get involved in their park.

Feedback from councils suggested they lack the knowledge to apply strategies that would work locally and testing of what does work is often inadequate — and budget cuts mean they no longer have the staff or enough time to properly investigate these innovations.

Many councils are also seen as risk-averse, while one council officer suggested contractors and in-house enforcement or education officers are unlikely to be enthusiastic about measures that would reduce demand for their services. The report makes several recommendations on how these can be achieved, including seeking outside help and funding, developing knowledge in house, and — potentially — work to build demand reduction into contracts if work is to be outsourced.

• The full report is available from APSE (£20 for members and £40 for non-members).

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