Happiness Through Design

Guest post #2 by Gareth Wasylynko

This post takes aim at how the design of our urban communities can influence our level of happiness and wellbeing. More specifically, we explore the human responses to urban planning, policy and design decisions. My interest in this subject was sparked by Charles Montgomery’s 2013 book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design which chronicles policy decisions, urban activism and urban design practices across the globe targeted towards creating communities capable of adding value to our lives.

Of the numerous starting points for this research, I will enter the realm of happy neighbourhood design through the work of Jane Jacobs, and I know what you’re thinking…sigh, another urban studies blog about Jane Jacobs, but in doing so, my hope is to understand her ideas about great neighbourhood design and trace their viability in the modern context through a selection of related literature.

Jane Jacobs & Designing Better Cities

Although it took her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities a number of decades to become ingrained in the mainstream discourse of urban design, Jane Jacobs’s discussion of the integral role of a diversified and engaged middle-class in the construction of truly liveable cities and neighbourhoods provides a meaningful framework for neighbourhood planning today. She believed this idyllic urban family middle class could be formed through grassroots economic activity and a range of urban design tactics aimed at promoting social cohesion. In attaining this lively, community-first neighbourhood observed in her adopted neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, New York, Jacobs advocated for designing a city as an interconnected ecosystem of parks, neighbourhoods, economic and political centres. And in doing so, channeling development under a strategy of mixed-use, high density, bottom-up community planning, and local economic activity. Jacobs argued that these neighbourhood attributes created great cities, cities conducive to prosperous human life, sustainability, and localized economic activity.

Does better neighbourhood design actually enable residents to live happier, more meaningful lives? Or is it, rather, the case that these attributes provide the conditions for residents to live a very humane life full of diverse social connections and opportunities for employment, whereas whether happiness is involved is up to the individual? Either way, we begin to see a normative vision of the way our neighbourhoods ought to be planned, a gentle nudge provoking the idea that if we simply lived in better-designed neighbourhoods, our lives might be more fulfilling.

But could it be that simple? When we consider the diverse range of human settlements across the globe, all of the complexities in people’s lives that influence levels of fulfillment and happiness in every neighbourhood, regardless of its design, can it truly be that the quality of our surrounding urban environment determines our wellbeing? Perhaps the answer is that a well-designed city cannot necessarily guarantee individual happiness, but what it can do is provide the conditions to offer the things humans need to feel fulfilled in their lives. In defining these conditions and understanding their role, the importance of the relationship between the human and their environment can be researched and then applied in practices of urban planning and design. Through this theory we acknowledge that a better-designed city can more appropriately offer these conditions than a poorly designed city can, and therefore has the capacity to open the door to happier ways of life.

Rybczynski’s Critique of Jacobs’ Blueprint for Happiness

A scholarly critic of Jacobs, Witold Rybczynski, has famously disagreed with these principles, electing to analyze macro-scale market trends rather than human-scale neighbourhood activity. He attests that our cities have experienced fundamental changes over the second half of the twentieth century, and as Jacobs feared, the automobile has come to dominate mobility in North American cities. This in turn, he argues, has created a preference for suburban living as consistently reinforced by suburban settlement and development. Under the primary rational assumption that people will choose to live in the situation best suited to them in Rybczynski’s understanding, the urban conditions required for happiness appear to be much different than what Jacobs had advocated. Rybczynski argues in his book “Makeshift Metropolis” that the market has spoken in a definitive way that Americans “want to live in cities that are spread out” (p.167). He argues that Americans have become increasingly dissimilar, and that dispersion across a city accommodates the differences between people.

In his avocation that Americans prefer cities that are spread out, he intends that dispersal cannot be simply equated to development patterns of suburbanization. That the introduction of transportation and communication technologies like automobiles, television, and the internet have enabled people to live in more dispersed communities while still attaining the same levels of social capital as in the past. What Jacobs described as the charm of a neighbourhood, social cohesiveness and “old buildings for new ideas”, Rybczynski describes as a tax on efficiency, convenience, and a commitment to perpetual maintenance. Ultimately, Rybczynski’s approach to understanding neighbourhood wellbeing is rooted in empirical data trends as a means of objectively representing human desires. While on the contrary, Jacobs’s focus on anecdotal observations rooted in her personal bias work to pronounce the significance of strong social connections enabled by a good urban environment. Despite their differences, both views credit the idea that factors contributing to wellbeing in neighbourhood design can be studied and understood, and later planned for.

The Happiness Index

We see attempts to analyze human happiness on a neighbourhood scale in geographical happiness monitoring, or the Happiness Index. At a national level, the World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranks the happiness level of 154 nations on the determinants of GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and trust. The idea first came from the landlocked Kingdom of Bhutan in 1972 when they opted to measure what they called Gross National Happiness as a measure of national success rather than the traditionally used Gross Domestic Product. Since Bhutan King Jigme Singye Wangchuck famously said “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”, we have seen measures of national happiness gain credibility across the globe as evidenced by the UN’s World Happiness Report. One of the nine domains used to assess National Happiness in Bhutan is “community vitality”, which studies relationships and social interactions within communities. Although not explicitly linked to the physical design of a neighbourhood, this metric of analysis suggests neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood discrepancies in “community vitality”, that different neighbourhoods are better equipped to enable it.

Locally in the Pacific Northwest, the two largest metropolitan areas neighbouring Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle have both initiated measures of happiness at the city scale. In 2013 Seattle released its first wave of findings from its Happiness Index. The research sought to determine differences in wellbeing at the neighbourhood scale and to understand why disparities might exist. In the end, the city concluded that “we think it’s a combination of light and views, a lively arts scene, walkability and access to transit, affordable homes, plus plenty of fresh local food and space for you (and your dog)” (Seattle Mag, 2013). The recognition of design-related attributes like walkability and access to transit endorse Jacobs’ guidelines for designing neighbourhood well-being, but also lack in their understanding of how social cohesiveness can contribute to neighbourhood scores, and whether it is actually possible to improve levels of social cohesion through design.

A few years before Seattle in 2008, a group of seven local organizations in Victoria established the Greater Victoria Happiness Index Partnership drawing on the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. As the first foray into the measure of Happiness in Canada, Victoria sought to identify the factors that contributed to community wellbeing as a means to then better provide those factors to their citizens. Then Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin summed up the study of neighbourhood happiness when he said: “the truth is we can’t make people happy, but we can address those issues around quality of life”. An interesting thought, provoking the realization that the degree of complexity in individual well-being and emotional state will likely forever prohibit local governments from addressing the needs related to the well-being of their entire population. What we can do is continue to use tools like the Happiness Index to better understand how our neighbourhoods provide the conditions necessary for life satisfaction and wellbeing, because once we understand those, we can plan them. At least in theory.

The happiness index in Seattle and Victoria demonstrates a municipal tool capable of indicating some of the attributes citizens might desire in a neighborhood. With them, we are presented a list of neighbourhood characteristics related to affordability, convenience and sustainability that are, for a lack of better words, fairly obvious in their link to wellbeing. The Index materializes the effort of the municipality in prioritizing quality of life, in doing so providing insightful indicators as opportunities for neighbourhood enhancement.

Identifying neighbourhood gaps where these indicators have yet to be introduced is a legitimate first step in designing better neighbourhoods, but is this really a comprehensive solution? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between Bhutan’s measurement of community vitality and Seattle’s recognition of preferential urban design attributes, but how do we bridge the gap between measurement and design to actually stimulate higher levels of social integration?

Near the final pages of Happy City, Charles Montgomery says “we translate the uncertainty of city life into retreat instead of curiosity and engagement. We let the fear of being uncomfortable, inconvenienced or hurt guide us into cities that not only isolate us but rob us of all the ease and pleasure and richness”. Lending his support to the work of Jacobs rather than Rybczynski, that trends of dispersion recognized in Makeshift Metropolis reflect a failure in decision-making rather than universal desires.

The happiness index identifies neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood differences in quality of life characteristics, but it must be recognized for what it is, and that is as a tool for identifying preferential neighbourhood characteristics, not as a blueprint for neighbourhood design. If the necessary conditions for stimulating neighbourhood wellbeing can be contested, as seen with the polarized opinions of Jacobs and Rybczynski, and tools to analyze them only offer surface level solutions, then it seems that the design of wellbeing is truly as complex as it seems. A large discrepancy exists between understanding characteristics of community wellbeing and effectively implementing them through urban design and planning.


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