In most physical and policy planning, triple bottom line benchmarks focus on environment and economy, and tend to skim over the subject of society. That’s probably because urban design impacts are much easier to measure with respect to profit and planet than they are with respect to people.
Any good MBA professor preaches, “What gets measured gets done.” For several generations, we’ve been proving that point with our relentless focus on measuring our collective success via a host of global economic indicators. Since An Inconvenient Truth, environmental factors have joined the economic mainstream as well, sparking a whole new breed of Eco Warriors.
Now, we’re starting to get our arms around some of the bigger public health issues connecting society with the built environment, particularly on the obesity, diabetes and depression fronts. Proponents of gross national happiness to augment gross national product would like to see our society focused on conserving instead of consuming and connectivity instead of distrust.
Still, how do we measure national happiness, well-being, and social capital as they relate to the way we plan our neighbourhoods, towns and cities?
This week’s Wall Street Journal article released the 2010 Legatum Prosperity Index. “Wealth alone does not make for a happy and successful society. Happy citizens are produced as much by democracy, freedom, and entrepreneurial opportunity as they are by a growing economy.” Of note, this index tracks social capital as well, starting to value people’s connections and the higher levels of trust that result from frequent interactions.
“Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts [..] the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Robert Kennedy, 1968
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index tracks life evaluation, physical health, emotional health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access. Once our basic needs are provided for, increased wealth does not increase our happiness appreciably, nor does unemployment effect us as much as we might think. Instead, happiness is due to our sense of belonging, and not our income, confirmed by John Helliwell, professor of economics at the University of British Columbia. Public spaces that bring people together in congenial activity produce happier citizens than those – like traffic jams – that spur animosity and aggression, Professor Helliwell says.
Still, neither of these indices correlate urbanism to happiness. But the City of Vancouver is starting to. As one of the world’s most livable cities, Vancouver is asking itself what more it can do to provide for physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs. In doing so, it’s adding spirit to the other pillars of a healthy community: complete community (land use, density); healthy mobility (transit); healthy buildings (zero carbon); thriving landscapes (open space); green infrastructure (water, sewers, storm); healthy food systems (organic agriculture, nutrition); healthy community (facilities, programs); and healthy abundance (sustainable economic development).
Advancing the idea of “spiritual urbanism,” Vancouver’s Healing Cities finds inspiration in the human body’s ability to rebuild, repair and regenerate, and asks what it takes for our cities to heal themselves, and in turn heal us. Oxytocin, the trust hormone, goes up with eye contact. We get a whole lot more of it while walking. Which is just the beginning of balm to the spirit fostered in walkable neighbourhoods.
And it’s interesting how some things go full circle, with a healthy society making for a healthy economy. 60% of East Coast developers say, “to stay competitive, they are shifting away from bigger traditional home designs to conservative pedestrian-oriented mixed-use neighbourhoods.” People get more enduring happiness from experiences in their neighbourhood than possessions in their home.
On the other end of the spectrum, what makes people the most unhappy? Not work, but commuting to work.
Just as Vancouver is a shining example to the developed world, Bogota’s urban happiness movement is an urban innovator of the developing world, led by former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa. “There are a few things we can agree on about happiness,” he says. “You need to fulfill your potential as a human being. You need to walk. You need to be with other people. Most of all, you need to not feel inferior.” A key to equality is providing dignified, functional transportation, which Bogota has done with a powerful version of bus rapid transit as well as extensive bike and pedestrian networks.
“When you talk about these things, designing a city can be a very powerful means to generate happiness,” Peñalosa says. By linking urban design to the economics of happiness, Bogotans have become happier. The murder rate fell by an astounding 40% during Peñalosa’s term and continues to decrease, along with the number of traffic deaths. Traffic moves three times faster now during rush hour. And the changes transformed how people feel.
“A good city is like a good party – people stay much longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves,” per Jan Gehl, author of a City for People, and leader of Copenhagen’s transformation to a bikeable, walkable city. Gehl encourages urban design from the perspective of the five senses, taken at walking speed. This eye-level approach does much to address the needs — and the happiness — of the individual.
So I still don’t have an Urban Happiness Index. But I think it’s coming soon, to a street near you.
22 responses to “Can Cities Help You Forget Your Troubles, C’mon Get Happy?”
Great post. I should be a regular on your blog!
I am writing a book on live-work, in which I will make the case that not commuting and what results from that simple omission is –if treated properly–a far stronger sense of community.
Under the weather today, more later.
This post really hits home as I sit in our City budget deliberations. I wish my colleagues could read it now. Their definition of happiness seems to be related to “low taxes”, whatever the effect on municipal services.
I have thought about this topic often. I have a note on my computer that reads, “Overall Goal, Improve Quality of Life.” Why do we plan? Because the environments in which we live have an impact on whether or not we have a happy and fulfilling life. I agree, we need an urban happiness index.
Urban Happiness Index
Loved the idea and rather than reinvent the wheel how can we combine the existingWalkability, Housing + Transportation and Gallup-Healthways with other newer ones related to aesthetics, cultural diversity perhaps….
And I always liked this Recipe for Happiness…not sure of the author….
Recipe For Happiness
2 Heaping cups of patience
1 Heart full of love
2 Hands full of generosity
Dash of laughter
1 Head full of understanding
Sprinkle generously with kindness
Add plenty of faith and mix well.
Spread over a period of a lifetime
And serve everyone you meet.
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The EU has been studying quality of life for some time, and their report direct policy of the EU member states.
Another factor in the Urban Happiness Index would also be whether the streets are ‘spatially just’ through the (re)allocation of rights to space in favor of the least powerful users aka pedestrians, public transit users and cyclists. The concept of spatial justice has the potential to transform our thinking on planning cities, urban spaces, and sustainability.
Check my Blog for more
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Thanks, everyone, for the insights. Here are a few more interesting studies released since this post:
Canadian Centre for the Study of Living Standards
indicates “Canadians are a stubbornly happy bunch.” [..] “The most important reason for geographical variation in happiness in Canada is differences in the sense of belonging to local communities, which is generally higher in small CMAs, rural areas, and Atlantic Canada.”
Reviews of this study:
Soul of the Community
3-year study of 26 cities shows the importance of community attachment, with the top 3 things that make people feel connected to their community:
– area’s physical beauty
– opportunities for socializing
– city’s openness to people
Soul of the Community indicates that the cities with the highest rate of
attachment had the highest rates of GDP growth.
Writer and Vancouver resident Charles Montgomery has a book coming out on this theme. Happy City will be published in 2011 in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in the UK by Alan Lane/Penguin, and in Canada by Doubleday. Here’s a description of the book: http://www.charlesmontgomery.ca/happiness.html.
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Wow, Hazel, can’t believe I missed this one! Excellent post. I’ve been dealing with similar issues recently both here (http://bit.ly/e4NEFJ) and in the Original Green Scorecard I’m working on, which will include coding for lovability. That’s the hardest part of it… how do you define lovability?
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There are a lot of means and paths to happiness. Acting as if you were already happy, helping someone else, smiling at people as they pass you – you can trick your brain into feeling happy – the rest of your body, mind and spirit will follow! This week on my blog is “H” – and I have several posts on Happiness – it’s a great topic for today or any day! Enjoy the day!
The Globe and Mail Time to Lead series addresses walkability and health. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/unhealthy-neighbourhoods-play-big-role-in-obesity-diabetes-epidemic/article2024476/
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I’m 4th year student of Architecture , in School of planing and Architecture in New Delhi in India.
I’m doing a dissertation on Impact of Built Environment on people’s behavior, I would appreciate if any one knows any source which can help me get related data on this topic.
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Производство полуфабрикатов из крестьянского сырья.