Ghent, wee have a problem...

How a historic Belgian city reduced rates of public urination step by step with a creative use of behavioural science...and a lot of yellow spray paint

Dear reader,

Let me transport you to a small yet historic Belgian city, rich in medieval cathedrals and belfries, interwoven with canals, with cobbled streets free of cars and full of artistic cosmopolitanism.

Introducing Ghent, the thinking man's Bruges, where impressive cultural aesthetics sit comfortably alongside a quiet, provincial sense of community amongst its 250,000 residents.

Having been to Ghent a few times, I'm always struck by how beautiful, well-preserved and fun to explore it is.

And yet, all is not well in the city.

No, because as a side effect of all its historic pubs that sell over 200 types of beer, it suffers from a significant amount of public urination in its streets, degrading its wonders in a rather multi-sensory way.

This problem was raised by Mathias Celis, a PhD researcher in Experimental Psychology at the University of Ghent, who reached out to me recently.

He told me that Ghent had reported a 252% increase in urination charges dished out between 2006 and 2017, increasing from 1,296 to 4,567.

Mathias was interested to see whether the toolkit of behavioural science could help mop up this challenge. Let me share what he and his team did over a 13 week period to see if it made a splash, or if instead they hit a (14th century) brick wall.

Behavioural barrier #1 - Lack of awareness

The first issue to be tackled was one of awareness:

How do you make people - especially those who've had a late night drink or 5 - aware of the fact that there's a toilet nearby as they walk the streets?

Experiment 1: Get people to notice what's hidden

The first experiment used the concept of Salience - that is, surfacing information that could otherwise be hidden, to increase the chances that people will notice the toilets.


An intervention using green footprints had already been successful in reducing litter in Copenhagen by 46% back in 2012 by making bin locations more 'salient' or observable.

Mathias was keen to see if such success could be replicated for toilets. Fittingly, he used yellow instead of green footprints. Interventions were set up at key locations around the city like this below.


From tracking 8,832 hours of data from 4 cameras and controlling for weather, beer consumption at the pubs and a host of other variables, results showed a 51% decrease in public urination in the locations tested.

Behavioural barrier #2 - Indecision

However, although clearly effective, salience alone needn't be the best solution to reducing public urination. People may notice the toilets but not necessarily act upon that information, especially when drunk or with friends. This leads us to problem #2:

How do you make it easier for people to take action on your intervention?

Experiment 2: Provide a decision prompt

Inspired by the way that IKEA uses arrows throughout its store designs to craft a path through its vast retail environments to increase dwell-time to an average of 2.5 hours per visit, Mathias wondered how such decision-making cues could be used outside pubs and bars in public places.


Here, he experimented with the concept of providing both autonomy and certainty in the process, instead of steps, providing two arrows to toilets, each with 'certain' short walking distances. Doing so would shift the internal thought process from:

"Do I or do I not use the public toilet"


"Which of these two toilets should I use? I'll go to the nearest one 6 seconds away!"


This resulted in a reduction of 72.3% of urinators per day - a clear improvement on the first intervention.

Experiment 3: Provide a decision prompt and guide to task completion

What happens when you combine the two previous interventions together? Will they have a compounding effect, cancel each other out or will they have some sort of unintended consequence??


Here, two well-positioned arrows indicating toilet availablity were combined with a clear visual pathway to complete the 'task'.


This combination had the biggest impact of all, leading to a staggering 83.7% reduction in urinations.

Below shows the impact of the different interventions next to the control for the study.

Much like a beer-filled drunk with a full bladder, wee can't wait to see what Mathias works on next!

What does it all mean?

Socially, as the restrictions placed upon us by Covid start to decline, people will return to pubs and bars, leading to a likely resurgence of this problem in towns and cities across the world.

Economically, as travel and tourism resumes, and cities seek to persuade us with their cultural charms, there's a unique opportunity for Councils to use this moment to clean up any bad behaviours that would otherwise leave a bad stink for visitors.

Behaviourally, this is a great example of different Nuggets within the behavioural toolkit being used together to solve a common social problem.

And personally, when I look up at that 15th century medieval church, Mathias's work will help me to be reminded more of its history and less of its piss-story. #pee-kend-rule

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