Behavioral norms can change

Sometimes students in my courses or audience members attending one of my presentations become discouraged by the difficulty in changing behaviors or social norms of the US public.  The task of persuading people to incorporate physical activity into daily living patterns or the public to value density and city living appear to be so enormous that there is a temptation to give up.  There is no way to get the public to change its ways.

But recent history suggests that there can be substantial change in social norms.  When I was a child, cars did not have seat belts.  Today, most adults use them and the use of special car seats for infants and children is the norm.   Indicative of these changes in social norms is  that most states now require car seats for children.   This change happened within a few decades.

Similarly, there was a major change in tobacco-related social norms.  When I was young, hostesses kept boxes of cigarettes available for guests’ use, many high schools had smoking areas, and people regularly smoked at work, home, restaurants and around children.  Today, while too high a percentage of people smoke in the United States, smoking behavior itself is highly frowned on.  Even in New Orleans, I noticed that many people stepped out of bars to light up despite that smoking is still allowed in bars.  Behavioral norms can change.

These kind of group or society-wide type of interventions are a major tool of  public health. Rather than accepting values, beliefs and behaviors as fixed, public health can seek to change them.  In contrast, though urban planners often try marketing of individual products and try to persuade the public or elected officials to adopt new ideas, they don’t, for the most part, try to modify the parameters in which they operate.  Could they?  Might they try to work with communities to drive less, adopt higher densities, or embrace mixed income development? Though these are skills that are not taught in planning school, they are not beyond their capacity.

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