Wealth Blog

Towards the happy city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 January, 2014, 6:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 January, 2014, 6:46pm

Thanks to people called behavioural economists; happiness is now taken seriously and measured as if it were tangible instead of an abstract notion. Quite how you compare one person’s happiness apple with another’s orange beats me, but it’s an interesting step in the right direction.

Anyway, these academic chaps have now decided that happiness exists and psychologists now study the impact of our decisions on the rest of our lives. In tandem with this growing realisation comes the concept that cities are living entities and not just lumps of masonry.

Born-again cities

The latter half of the 20th century swallowed the idea that suburban bungalow bliss was the Holy Grail and joining the long commuters’ club meant you had made it. This is now being dissected. In his new book, “Happy City,” Canadian scribe Charles Montgomery links the idea of happiness with born-again urban living.

His premise is that if city planners and property developers rated the happiness factor more highly, cities could be designed to make the lives of their inhabitants more blissful. According to Montgomery, we are not terribly good at working out what makes us happy by ourselves, so we need help. This is a rather sweeping generalisation.

So what’s the elixir of urban bliss? To arrive at that conclusion, it helps to approach this backwards and observe what contributes to urban gloom. Commuting, especially long commutes are high up the list.

In Europe and probably the US too, but only certain Asian cities, people accept a 90-minute trip from home to work. They justify this tedious daily schlep with the thought of arriving home to their idea of family heaven: a detached des res with numerous bedrooms.

They overlook the reality of waking up each morning in the dark, stewing in rush hour traffic for three hours a day and getting home too late to read bedtime stories, let alone have dinner at a civilised hour. They find they’re too knackered to enjoy any of the joys of the suburban dream.

According to Montgomery, studies show that the worse the commute, the less happy people are, not just with the travelling but it tarnishes their life quality generally. He isn’t completely anti long commutes; rather he thinks builders and estate agents should pay attention to the new knowledge linking happiness to the demands of urban and suburban life. Then they might switch focus less on suburbia and more on homes nearer the city and workplace.

Live closer to work

The result, he thinks, would be fewer disgruntled people.

Specifically, in a study he helped with New York’s Guggenheim Museum, volunteers measured their feelings of well-being with an electronic device while walking through Lower Manhattan. The majority said their happiness meter spiked as they passed bushes and greenery. “Green space in cities shouldn’t be considered an optional luxury,” Montgomery concludes. “It is a crucial part of a healthy human habitat.” It doesn’t have to be wide expanse like Central Park, small patches of green will suffice for pedestrians to recharge their need-for-green batteries.

Joined up living

It seems people are happy when they live a connected life, interacting with neighbours and colleagues. According to Montgomery, just saying hi to the people you meet helps people balance the intensity of modern life and especially the narrow confines of the nuclear family. Urban design matters. He describes it as: “The power of scale and design to open or close the doors of sociability,” he writes, “is undeniable."

This is all startlingly un-new; Aristotle was on about it 2,400 years ago before commuting was invented. But Montgomery’s focus is on the future of city design rather than extolling the virtues of rare city pockets where neighbourliness already or still exists.

His message is that it’s time to make cities livable again, to enable people to indulge in joined-up living where they speak to the people they meet on the street and on the stairs and in the shops each day. Quite how this translates from America to Hong Kong where the majority of people have no choice but to live on top of each other in a cramped tower block is anyone’s guess and as anyone who has lived in London or New York can testify, you can be as lonely in a city centre as you can in suburbia. He ignores personality as a contributing factor and component of happiness - some people are extrovert to make friends anywhere, others cannot.

A lot of this is stating the obvious. What’s new is that it seems to be taken seriously by America's new generation of town planners. He has brought happiness out of the closet as a valid part of life.

Food for thought

As Hong Kong prepares to concrete over large tracts of ocean and turn them into housing estates, our planners might do well to consider some of this brave new take on old thinking. And the new approach helps prevent any more Tin Shui Wai-type suburban slums.