The Happy City

What makes a city happy? What can local politicians and urban planners can do to promote a city’s happiness or well-being? These were the key questions at the talk show Stadsleven’s (‘City Life’) session on ‘The Happy City’ in Amsterdam. The talk show higlighted lessons for cities worldwide. The speakers had a four different answers to the question “what makes a city happy?”: compactness, connection, trust, and design!

Utrecht, a happy compact city

The first speaker was Paul Schnabel, a well-known sociologist. He commented on a BBC article labelling Utrecht as the happiest city in the Netherlands. Schnabel agreed that happiness levels in Utrecht would be high and attributed this to the fact that it is a compact city with a large variety of people and activities. All elements important to city life, like shopping, culture and nightlife, are available within its small inner city. Utrecht’s inner city is under pressure though: it hosts 30,000 inhabitants and serves as the primary city centre for several hundreds of thousands of people from the surrounding areas. But why would Utrecht be happier than Amsterdam, which offers even more of the same? It’s not scale: it’s the fact that Amsterdam is perpetually flooded with tourists. (This is no surprise if you’ve ever heard an Amsterdammer complain about the non-existing cycling skills of ordinary tourists). Brussels, in practice, is composed of compact neighbourhoods, like Etterbeek, Ixelles and St. Gilles – a recipe for happiness?

Cities, connecting people

Interestingly, beauty was not a factor mentioned by Schnabel. Charles Montgomery, a journalist and the author of The Happy City, didn’t focus on this aspect either. He emphasised the importance of connections. Not only the personal connections to other people which are so determining for happiness, but also the physical connection between areas of the city. He cited the example of Enrique Penalosa, a former mayor of Bogota, which I mentioned in a previous post. Penalosa tackled challenges in Bogota, such as crime, social inequality and lack of education, by changing the transport system. A car-based system that separated the haves from the have-nots was replaced by a well-established bus system. This allowed all citizens, regardless of their wealth, to connect to every part of the city, and to go to schools, hospitals and parks in other areas. Montgomery saw a task for urban planners to design spaces for human interaction. He even mentioned what the ideal depth of a front yard is to facilitate the shallow conversations with strangers about the weather: three meters. If it’s more, people hide behind their fences; if it’s less, they don’t feel at ease sitting in their gardens too close to passers-by.

Trusted strangers in the copy shop

If meeting people is so important, is there a role for government to create meeting places or to actively bring people together? There might or there might not. Host Tracy Metz highlighted the importance of the ‘trusted stranger’: the person you  encounter in a non-descript place like a  copy shop, but hardly talk to. However, seeing the same person around somewhat regularly creates a level of familiarity. (At the second thought, I could maybe use a copy shop or two in Ixelles). This establishes a basic level of trust needed to feel comfortable in an area. Indeed, happiness is often associated with trust. Denmark’s high happiness levels may come as “we hate our politicians but we trust them”, as a business man says in this investigation in Copenhagen’s happiness.

Design

Compactness, connection and trust all count, but doesn’t beauty have a role to play? ‘Positive design’ professor Pieter Desmet of the TU Delft believes that designing beautiful products can help. But products have to appeal to the emotions of the consumers. At the same time, they have to take into account that the material goods lose their powers quickly, as consumers adapt to them. Products can never be a source of continued happiness. But design can create new positive experiences in the city’s architecture. That is what Desmet teaches his students.

Image: Delft Institute of Positive Design

Image: Delft Institute of Positive Design

And let’s end with a great experience in a happy city:

Wish to read more about ‘the Happy City’? Sanne van der Beek, the editor of the talk show, has compiled an amazing dossier with articles, images, videos and links about the Happy City (including a guest post by undersigned).

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