A sustainable community that's worth smiling about

 

 Port Phillip, Australia, is putting up road signs
indicating a street's smiles per hour in a bid to
create a more harmonious society

 

By Peter Singer

 

Taipei Times, Apr 22, 2007

 

If you were to walk along the streets of your
neighborhood with your face up and an open
expression, how many of those who passed you
would smile, or greet you in some way?

 

Smiling is a universal human practice, although
readiness to smile at strangers varies according
to culture. In Australia, where being open and
friendly to strangers is not unusual, the city
of Port Phillip, an area covering some of the
bayside suburbs of Melbourne, has been using
volunteers to find out how often people smile at
those who pass them in the street. It then put
up signs that look like speed limits, but tell
pedestrians that they are in, for example, a
"10 smiles per hour zone."

 

Frivolous nonsense? A waste of taxpayers' money?
Mayor Janet Bolitho says that putting up the
signs is an attempt to encourage people to smile
or say "G'day" -- the standard Australian
greeting -- to both neighbors and strangers as
they stroll down the street.

 

Smiling, she adds, encourages people to feel
more connected with each other and safer, so it
reduces fear of crime -- an important element in
the quality of life of many neighborhoods.

 

In a related effort to get its residents to know
each other, the city government also facilitates
street parties. It leaves the details to the
locals, but offers organizational advice, loans
out barbecues and sun umbrellas, and covers the
public liability insurance. Many people who have
lived in the same street for many years meet
each other for the first time at a street party.

 

All of this is part of a larger program that
attempts to measure changes in the city's
quality of life, so that the city council can
know whether it is taking the community in a
desirable direction. The council wants
Port Phillip to be a sustainable community, not
merely in an environmental sense, but also in
terms of social equity, economic viability, and
cultural vitality.

 

Port Phillip is serious about being a good
global citizen. Instead of seeing private car
ownership as a sign of prosperity, the city
hails a declining number of cars -- and rising
use of public transport -- as a sign of progress
in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while
encouraging a healthier lifestyle in which
people are more inclined to walk or ride a bike.
The city is also seeking less energy-intensive
designs for new buildings.

 

Some local governments see their role as being
to provide basic services like collecting the
trash and maintaining the roads -- and of course,
collecting the taxes to pay for this. Others
promote the area's economy, by encouraging
industry to move to the area, thus increasing
jobs and the local tax base. The Port Phillip
city government takes a broader and longer-term
view. It wants those who live in the community
after the present generation has gone to have
the same opportunities for a good quality of
life as today's residents have. To protect that
quality of life, it has to be able to measure
all the varied aspects that contribute to it --
and friendliness is one of them.

 

For many governments, both national and local,
preventing crime is a far higher priority than
encouraging friendship and cooperation. But, as
Richard Layard, a professor at the London
School of Economics, has argued in his recent
book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science,
promoting friendship is often easy, cheap, and
can have big payoffs in making people happier.
So why shouldn't that be a focus of public
policy?

 

Very small positive experiences can make people
not only feel better about themselves, but also
be more helpful to others. In the 1970s,
American psychologists Alice Isen and Paula
Levin conducted an experiment in which some
randomly selected people making a phone call
found a 10 cent coin left behind by a previous
caller, and others did not. All subjects were
then given an opportunity to help a woman pick
up a folder of papers she dropped in front of
them.

 

Isen and Levin say that of the 16 who found a
coin, 14 helped the woman, while of the 25 who
did not find a coin, only one helped her. A
further study found a similar difference in
willingness to mail an addressed letter that
had been left behind in the phone booth: those
who found the coin were more likely to mail the
letter.

 

Although later research has cast doubt on the
existence of such dramatic differences, there
is little doubt that being in a good mood makes
people feel better about themselves and more
likely to help others. Psychologists refer to
it as the "glow of goodwill."

 

Why shouldn't taking small steps that may
produce such a glow be part of the role of
government?

 

Here is one measure of success: over the past
year and a half, the proportion of people who
smile at you in Port Phillip has risen, from
8 percent to 10 percent.

 

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at
Princeton University and laureate professor at
the University of Melbourne
.