Happy cities – Searching for the secret of urban contentment

Is your city a happy city? Do you know what makes a city happy? Luckily, there are plenty of surveys and studies on what makes for urban contentment – and how to achieve it. Many people are a bit surprised to learn that money is not the main ingredient.

Of course, economic prosperity brings many good things to cities, such as new high-rise buildings, booming populations, more jobs, new shops and greater opportunities. But that’s not enough. Instead, a city with elevated levels of happiness is often one that has invested in the simple pleasures: in creating a sense of community and meaning, and in ensuring freedom to move about flexibly. A happy city, it appears, is a city that designs an infrastructure that supports elementary concepts of human connection.

Smart inside and out – In many ways, the smart city concept is simply good urban planning that incorporates both advances in digital technology and new thinking in the age-old city concepts of relationships, community, environmental sustainability, participatory democracy, good governance and transparency.

Published on 21.02.2017

Doesn’t money buy urban happiness?

Perhaps, but it depends on what the money is used for. In the 20th century, many urban centers experienced economic prosperity. But people did not feel better, to judge from surveys and public health statistics. Indeed, much recent research indicates that those who live in large cities are generally less happy than those living elsewhere – despite higher incomes.

Look at Bogotá (Columbia). Like many cities, it had been redesigned around the car and private spaces over the course of many decades. The vibrant street-life that had bound together neighborhoods suffered. Admittedly, Bogotá was also blighted with drugs and crime, but it was primarily the threat of speeding cars, congestion and the lack of places to congregate that kept people away from the streets.

Enter Mayor Enrique Peñalosa Londoño. Instead of putting more money into cars, he embarked on an ambitious plan to rebuild the human-scale infrastructure of wellbeing: an ambitious network of bicycle paths, new parks, and the TransMilenio – Bogotá’s first rapid transit system. Using the human experience as his base, he rejected decades of received wisdom as to how cities should be designed.

The elements of happy cities

Of course, urban wellbeing depends on countless things, including jobs, schools, housing, and even shopping. But Bogotá’s mayor also understood that a critical factor in creating a ‘happiness city’ is investing in the social interactions that lead to community, i.e. social capital. Central to this investment is freedom. Paradoxically, this means both the journey and the destination, meaning both desirable means to get to places, and pleasant places to go and be – alone, or with others.

Green urban design focuses on creating people-centric cities. It prioritizes making space available for urban residents, by removing or reducing car traffic (with pedestrian malls, car-free zones, car-free days, etc.) and by reclaiming or repurposing lands for public use (e.g. parks, sport fields, and urban gardens).

And human-scale green mobility makes it possible for residents to easily get there. For instance, a Swedish study showed that people commuting longer than 45 minutes were 40% more likely to divorce. But this is not true of people walking or biking.

Meanwhile, new technologies are even making it possible to rethink subways in heavily urban areas, by better connecting train stations with the buildings above them. Meanwhile, new technologies are even making it possible to dramatically expand the purpose and use of dedicated urban spaces. Subway stations, for instance, are at the very heart of city life, providing not only access to transportation, but increasingly to on-site shopping, dining and recreation, as well. But the true potential for subway stations lies in better connecting them with the buildings above and/or near them. Innovative people-moving technologies such as MULTI can enable commuters to move more swiftly and easily from station to workplace, sports club or restaurant. That’s a happy thought.

Happy cities create places for people to be together
Happy cities create places for people to be together

Who’s happy now?

There are a number of urban surveys and happiness indexes. Seoul (S. Korea) tops the People sub-index of the Arcadis list, because its citizens see proof that their city cares. Oslo (Norway) and Zurich (Switzerland) top the poll in Europe in the most recent Eurobarometer survey. And the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index ranks Naples, Florida as the happiest US city.

Meanwhile, some cities are conducting surveys of their own urban happiness. For instance, in 2013 Santa Monica, CA (USA) won a major award for its plans to create a “Local Well-Being Index”. And all over the place, local experiments are testing methods to redesign cities, to make residents happier. A good introduction to the subject is Charles Montgomery’s 2013 book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.

Human mobility is an essential bridge to urban happiness
Human mobility is an essential bridge to urban happiness

Get happy – make your city smart, green and mobile

Cities that enable and support social connection and flexible mobility through the design of their urban spaces create citizens who are healthier and more content. Modern technologies now make it more possible than ever to leverage smart mobility solutions, green urban design, democracy and responsive government to transform every city – your city – into a happy city. As we say at URBAN HUB, it’s all about “People shaping cities”!

“We’re living an experiment. We might not be able to fix the economy. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier.”

Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, Mayor of Bogotá (Columbia)

Watch award-winning journalist Charles Montgomery talk about his work, at the intersection of urban design and happiness research.