Injecting Social Marketing into Urban Planning

Take a look at these two opening statements from Seattle and Cincinnati’s comprehensive plans:

“Further growth will present challenges and opportunities similar to the ones we have faced in the recent past. The City has created this Plan as a guide to help it make decisions about managing growth equitably over the next twenty years.” —Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan

“This is our vision to continue our thriving re-urbanization. This plan contains a range of goals, strategies and action steps, that all work together to build on our assets to create diverse, healthy, and livable neighborhoods, with great transportation options and strong public infrastructure. The ultimate goal is to strengthen all parts of the city, so that everyone can enjoy living in Cincinnati.Planning Cincinnati

Which one do you think would gain more public support for adoption? Probably Planning Cincinnati, winner of the 2014 Daniel Burnham Award for Comprehensive Plan. It sounds visionary and inspiring, and yet still feels wordy and vague despite it being heralded as an award-winning plan. At no point do these plans provide what the consumer—or in planning, the resident—explicitly gains by adopting the plan. This approach might change a statement like “transit-oriented development will make the community more walkable and livable” to “transit-oriented development will get you to work 15 minutes faster” in order to gain more public support.

Before attending UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, I was working at RTI International’s Center for Communication Science. One of our primary approaches was to apply social marketing principles to public health campaigns for the prevention of diseases and promotion of health. The International Social Marketing Association defines this principle as such:

Social Marketing seeks to develop and integrate marketing concepts with other approaches to influence behaviours that benefit individuals and communities for the greater social good.

The key to social marketing is that it frames interventions in terms of benefits and gains and nudges the target audience to make an informed decision. This is best seen in the development and implementation of American Legacy Foundation’s the truth campaign, which has been credited for cutting the number of smokers by 300,000 in its first two years.

The truth campaign’s Left Swipe Dat ad including major social media and YouTube celebrities.

In my current studies, I’ve become frustrated by how vague city and regional plans are with communicating their goals. And I find it odd that the average resident doesn’t know what a planner does or why our job is important. The fact that plans, which impact millions of people, don’t often aim their communications to the public at-large makes me lose faith in a good, solid idea being implemented by the government. This is why social marketing could help planners get people behind their work.

Photo Credit: CIVITAS Initiative

Only a few planning interventions incorporate social marketing. A study on influencing transportation choices found that the most successful transportation programs showed people how a simple change in their life could provide substantial benefits. Sweden actively uses social marketing techniques in their transportation planning process to promote sustainability. The towns of Lund and Malmo applied social marketing through LundaMaTs and CIVITAS SMILE1, respectively. The towns did so by identifying their target audience for every transportation initiative. For example, for bus ridership increases, CIVITAS SMILE targeted car drivers and regular commuters, recognizing the barriers and benefits that might come from riding the bus and the best behavior change tools suited for their needs.

Sample transit hub for Lunda MaTs. Source: LundaMaT.

The efforts from Lund and Malmo have been found to “clos[e] [the] attitudinal-behavior gap that exists in traditional transportation planning.”2 Both of the town’s transportation planning policies shared the four following elements:

  • Consumer oriented
  • Mutually beneficial exchange
  • Relationship thinking
  • Behavior change tools application  

The towns developed innovative transportation policies by figuring out how to make alternative transportation modes more attractive to customers. For example, they directly addressed perceived inconveniences associated with transfers during single trips by integrating bike facilities next to bus stops. In the case of the LundaMaTs, fifteen percent of residents modified their behavior by using their cars less.3 Even more impressive was the fact that car ownership per capita declined by two percent within a ten-year period.

Lund Train Station. Photo Credit: Flicker Creative Commons

Within planning in the United States, we rarely see these principles applied in our work. The concepts that are developed for places have intricate technical details but do not inherently understand the target audience. It feels like planners as a whole are not challenging themselves to “sell” planning interventions to different stakeholders. We can throw all the evidence and theories to justify why a planning intervention will work and the public may still not adopt it. Instead, we should push for presenting the value-add in our ideas—the so-what?—that we believe will enhance the social good.

CIVITAS SMILE is active in five European cities: 
2 Olga, C. 2009. The application of social marketing in promoting sustainable transportation. Lund University. Pg. 62, 
3 U.S. Department of Transportation. Application of TDM to Policy Issues.

Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno is a dual master’s student at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health. Her academic interests are in land use and health behavior. When she’s not exploring new food joints, she is obsessing over the NBA. Prior to UNC, Karla was a public health research analyst at RTI International and a radio producer at WNCU 90.7 FM Jazz.