Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

1.5-metre society: good behaviour doesn’t develop by itself

AUAS professor Lea den Broeder to join Corona Behavioural Unit

15 May 2020 10:49 | Urban Vitality

Lea den Broeder, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) professor and senior researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) is set to join the RIVM’s Corona Behavioural Unit. This group provides advice on what can help citizens maintain ‘the new normal’, from a behavioural science perspective. “We also need to make changes to our surroundings so that the elderly don’t have to keep stepping aside to let others pass by every time they go for a walk.”

“It’s a challenge for everyone,” says Lea den Broeder about the guidelines we are all trying to follow. Certain measures are particularly difficult for us to follow consistently, as shown by the survey recently conducted among over 90,000 Dutch people by the RIVM in cooperation with the Municipal Health Services (GGD). It turns out that one of the biggest challenges is maintaining a distance of at least 1.5 metres between ourselves and others outside the home, especially in supermarkets. People also often forget to wash their hands before leaving the house or after blowing their nose. And now city parks are filling up again; people want some ‘air’ amidst the lockdown.

Intrinsic drive

"You see behavioural relaxing in situations where you have no intrinsic drive,” explains Lea den Broeder, AUAS professor of Health and Environment. “It’s hard to stay disciplined when you don’t have a personal goal. But a resurgence of the virus is even less desirable. That is why we also need behavioural science knowledge, about factors that make it easier for people to maintain the new normal.” This is the reason for the formation of the Corona Behavioural Unit, in which AUAS professor Reint-Jan Renes is also involved.

Squares on the pavement

As a professor of Health and Environment, Den Broeder has already spent quite some time researching how public space can be adapted in such a way as to enable citizens to exhibit healthier behaviour. In the new Bajes Kwartier district, for example: green and accessible outside space encourages people – almost subconsciously – to get out and about more. Nudging should also be used to encourage healthy behaviour during the coronavirus era, such as keeping distance from others, says Den Broeder. This makes it easier for people to maintain the measures.

“Take the squares marked out on the pavement with chalk or tape, for example; you stand inside them almost automatically. That is a simple form of nudging. In addition, cities like Amsterdam are now also creating more space for cyclists and pedestrians, by adapting their infrastructure. There are a lot of buildings in Amsterdam and only a few square meters per person, so we have to organise the space optimally. That’s quite a challenge.”

Lea den Broeder

Not just cycle paths

At the same time, nudging alone is not nearly enough to permanently change behaviour patterns, says Den Broeder. “What professor Mirka Janssen does is a good example: she devised a method by which the scarce space in school playgrounds can be used in such a way that all children have more space and get more exercise. This is not just a matter of marking out areas in the playground; there is a whole programme around it, including training sessions.”

An example is the cycling behaviour of the Dutch: a healthy habit for which we are known all over the world. “This isn’t a genetic anomaly of the Dutch,” the professor jokes. “No, there are years of targeted government policy behind this, combined with a supportive bicycle industry. Role models also played a part: even the queen has been spotted riding a bike! So there’s more to it than just creating cycle paths. Changing healthy behaviour requires much more than just intervening in the environment; you have to include people in every aspect.”

Citizen science

The RIVM therefore recommends that citizens be involved in setting up the 1.5-metre society. Den Broeder agrees: “Let people contribute their own ideas on how to redesign a street or a square. They often know the situation best and already have good ideas about it.”

Den Broeder does a lot of research together with citizens (citizen science): involving them as fellow researchers and having them think about what they need in order to exhibit healthy behaviour helps to strengthen their intrinsic motivation.

The busy Westerpark on 5 May, a national holiday

Identify all knowledge in the Netherlands

Lea den Broeder’s task in the Corona Behavioural Unit is to reach out to knowledge networks in the Netherlands when it comes to behavioural science knowledge about the corona crisis. “A tremendous amount of research is being done, especially by universities, and also by other parties, such as Kiescompas, Motivaction and opinion pollsters. That is why the RIVM wants to get an overall view: who is researching what, so that we can connect all the knowledge and compare it.”

The Corona Behavioural Unit of the RIVM is led by Mariken Leurs, Manager of the Centre for Health & Society, Professor Marijn de Bruin and Professor Reint Jan Renes.