How one buddha statue transformed a community

This story began in 2009. Dan Stevenson, a resident of Oakland’s Eastlake Neighborhood, was fed up with people littering garbage in a traffic-diverting median at the intersection of two streets. He was used to drug dealing and prostitution in the neighbourhood, but as long as they didn’t cross a line, he didn’t feel the urge to act.

But the new median in the road turned out to become an open invitation for people to dump their garbage. And the moment one item got dropped, it signalled social proof to other people to follow the example, and this triggered more undesired behaviour.

Dan Stevenson came up with an idea: “What if I would put up a Buddha Statue?” He figured: Buddha is pretty neutral. A Jesus Christ statue is too controversial. But with Buddha, you can’t be offended. His idea was that the gaze of the Buddha might have a second-thought effect on criminals and litters.

What happened next, according to the The San Fransisco Gate is the following:

“He hoped that just maybe his small gesture would bring tranquillity to a neighborhood marred by crime: dumping, graffiti, drug dealing, prostitution, robberies, aggravated assault and burglaries.

What happened next was nothing short of stunning. Area residents began to leave offerings at the base of the Buddha: flowers, food, candles. A group of Vietnamese women in prayer robes began to gather at the statue to pray.And the neighborhood changed. People stopped dumping garbage. They stopped vandalizing walls with graffiti. And the drug dealers stopped using that area to deal. The prostitutes went away.

I asked police to check their crime statistics for the block radius around the statue, and here’s what they found: Since 2012, when worshipers began showing up for daily prayers, overall year-to-date crime has dropped by 82 percent. Robbery reports went from 14 to three, aggravated assaults from five to zero, burglaries from eight to four, narcotics from three to none, and prostitution from three to none”.

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Hostile Design 

The makers of the 99%invisble-podcast, where I heard the story, framed this intervention as an example of hostile design. Design that aims at deterring bad behaviours. A bit like the paint in Hamburg’s party district that bounces off your pee when people urinate against it. Similar to the park benches that were designed in such a way that homeless people cannot use them as a bed.

I wouldn’t exactly call this intervention hostile. What I really like about this intervention is that one single attribute redefined the perception of the physical space from a trash bin to a sacred place. And once it was redefined through this statue, it started to shape people’s behaviour. It quickly became a holy shrine for the Buddhist community. And they began to take care of the place. Once they figured out that Dan Stevenson was behind it, the Vietnamese community started to bring him presents and paying him their respects.

What I also love about this story is that it’s such a powerful example of how little our brain needs to alter the experience of what we see. We don’t need many cues for our mind to attribute a completely different meaning to what we see. One Buddha statue from a home depot store sufficed to transform the perception, the experience and the meaning of place. And it redefined the behaviours that were expected and those that were forbidden.

As Charles and Ray Eams once summarized one of the essential lessons in design: The design is not in the details. The detail is the design.

Psychological magic is everywhere.
We have to learn to see it.

You can hear the whole story on the 99% invisible podcast

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