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When a City Feels Like Home:

Building Happier Cities Written by Victoria Sgarro


hen it comes to designing our cities, urban planners have long tackled the big questions — wealth, efficiency, beauty. But even the best of planners can fail to consider the one thing their clients want most: happiness. Can the design of cities truly prioritize residents’ sense of well-being and belonging? The implications of this question are ubiquitous in our everyday lives, for only when cities are planned for happiness can they truly feel like home. In Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa saw the logic behind this approach to planning. Before Peñalosa took office as mayor in 1998, the city was extremely car-centric — despite the fact that only one-fifth of families owned a car. Streets and public spaces were mostly empty of pedestrians due to the dangers of traffic. Peñalosa decided to do something radical: he abandoned the city’s expensive highway expansion plan, funneling the surplus money into new cycling paths, parks, pedestrian plazas, and the city’s first bus rapid transit system, the TransMilenio. “We’re living an experiment,” Peñalosa told Charles Montgomery, author of “Happy City.” “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.” Peñalosa’s policies work against the entire last century of car-oriented planning in the western and developing world. Urban planning has long operated under the assumption that material wealth and urban sprawl are the


Illustration by Sara Wong

main ingredients for good cities. Yet, if this assumption is true, why are rates of mental illness and unhappiness growing alongside globally rising wealth and sprawl? While it may seem unlikely that the design of cities can have such a strong influence on residents’ mental health, city planning might just be the solution for creating happier communities. In the U.S., the percentage of people who report being “very happy” was at its highest during the 1950s, dropping off into a steady decline ever since. By 1993, less than one-third of Americans reported being “very happy.” In 2008, a study by Italian economists investigated this discrepancy between increasing wealth and decreasing happiness in the U.S. The group found that the country’s declining social capital (social networks and interactions) presented the greatest barrier to American’s happiness, even more than income inequality between rich and poor. Moreover, social isolation from family, friends and community leads to increased risk for physical ailments such as heart attack, stroke, cancer and depression. In contrast, people who feel connected to those around them tend to live longer and report being happier. These studies go to show that our sense of community influences our happiness and well-being. And what can stimulate or hinder our sense of community more than the architecture of where we live? In a 2005 study called “Suburban Blues” published in Psychology Today, researchers found a troubling

The Home ISSUE - Spring 2015  
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