Friday, November 15, 2013

Choice Architecture–Changing Defaults

A flashback on this, America Recycles Day, has me wondering if recycling may offer a possibility for the eventual home of a full-fledged Museum of Durham History, once it moves beyond the current avatar.

When I first visited Union Square in San Francisco, it was late September 1981.  A friend with Alaska Airlines, which had begun service to San Francisco two years earlier, had arranged for a group of us to fly from Alaska down to Oakland to see the Seahawks play the Raiders (Raiders won.)

On the way back to the airport, I asked if we could stop a few blocks west of the Square to see what was the late Bill Kimpton’s first boutique hotel, the Clarion Bedford, which six months earlier had launched a movement that is still revolutionizing lodging today.

Bill created a collection of very distinct properties, each with its own personality and its own chef-driven restaurant.  The Clarion had been a hotel owned by Lord Wedgewood (China) but essentially Bill took the idea of adaptively reusing old buildings to a new level, which is a form of recycling.

Union Square was originally just a park developed in the 1850s on the site of a huge sand dune.  But after the earthquake of 1906 there was talk of turning it into a parking lot, which then morphed into excavating an underground parking deck below the park and plaza, a form of recycling.

That idea didn’t win over voters until the late 1930s after San Franciscans had bet their homes to finance the Golden Gate Bridge.  When I visited, just as the 1980s got ready to economically boom, Union Square was being surrounded by high-end luxury stores.

A luxury hotel, now rebranded a J.W. Marriott, was erected by John Portman seven years after my visit, midway between the Square and the Kimpton’s Clarion Bedford.  That it marked the end of one era and the beginning of another was emerging during a stint there during a several months between gigs in  my field of community marketing.

Portman had started his career in the 1960s by ingeniously making adaptive reuse (a form of recycling) of a parking deck in Atlanta to create a Merchandise Mart.  In the 1970s and 1980s he made his name in hotels during the “brass and glass” era.

First it was by setting a new standard with the design of Hyatt Regencies and then in the 1980s, Marriott Marquis’, one of which kick started adaptive reuse of Times Square in New York while, regretfully, demolishing five historic theaters in the process.

Emerging out of controversy, the hotel was ultimately required to incorporate a new theater on the third floor.

It is clear in hindsight that the 1980s were bookended by the beginning of the boutique movement and the end of the era of huge atrium lobbies and rooftop restaurants.

Lodging began a transition, which is still underway, to Kimpton’s infinitely more distinctive and genuine community-connected approach now being emulated by chains.

Parking decks have evolved too.  Long viewed as uninspiring if not downright ugly necessities, many today are hidden inside retail and residential complexes or wrapped in disguise by developments like hotels or facades.

But old and new public decks are now are being adapted to feature retail or or restaurants or cultural facilities such as museums and galleries on the ground floor with rooftop residential and public spaces.

There is no reason a future new or renovated deck in Durham, North Carolina where I live can’t incorporate, on the ground floor, the 20,000 to 30,000 square feet typically needed by a local community history museum, which come to think of it is itself a form of recycling.

A good example is the State Street deck being built by local government in Sarasota, Florida as part of an agreement with a developer and rendered in the image in this blog.

A big part of getting institutions and individuals to recycle is a behavior called “choice architecture” in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, written by Dr. Richard H. Thaler, a behavioral economics researcher at the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein a professor of law at Harvard.

Getting people to recycle or adaptively reuse involves changing defaults.

One example is called “reverse recycling” which means switching up trash receptacles so trash goes in the little saddle bags once meant for recyclables and recyclables go in the much larger basket usually used for garbage.

A few years ago, I persuaded our sanitation department in Durham to replace my broken trash cart with a much smaller one since I was rarely filling the larger one after the city distributed much larger roll out carts for recycling.

Persistence paid off but I realized the department was stuck with the huge cart being the default.

But there is evidence that if the city gave every one the choice of a smaller cart along with a reduced fee, people would switch defaults and think recycling first and garbage second.  Here is a Nudge blog post showing how changing that ratio works and explaining why.

Studies show the same is true of grocery shopping carts.  Researchers at New Mexico State University found that people made healthier choices about food when carts were marked with tape showing where to put fruits and vegetables.

I love the smaller carts at Kroger and Food Lion but there are only a handful available, and usually none at Harris Teeter where I shop.  It is probably not coincidence that the smaller carts are the default at the more sustainability-focused Whole Foods in Durham.

The second call to action in the recycling slogan is “reduce.”  I bet the choices would be healthier if all stores made the smaller carts the default and the larger carts the exception.

All of these stores need to follow Whole Foods’ lead and at least reverse the ratio of large to small carts.  The first word in the slogan for recycling is “reduce.”

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