Urban spaces can be designed to make people feel happier, behave better and be kinder – and there are financial benefits
Tamsin RutterThu 8 Sep 2016 08.17 BST
People taking walking tours in Vancouver in September will be tested on their emotional responses to gardens and dark alleys Photograph: William Manning/Alamy
When Charles Montgomery first started talking about urban happiness, people laughed at him. As his colleague Omar Dominguez explains, “happiness is kind of an out-there concept for some people”.
Montgomery and Dominguez work at Happy City, a Canadian organisation named after Montgomery’s 2013 book, which makes the case for retrofitting cities for happiness and argues that streets, parks, shopping centres, housing estates – indeed most urban infrastructure – can be designed to make people feel happier, behave better and be kinder.
“If we give a damn about human wellbeing in cities, we need to study the emotional effects of spaces and systems,” says Montgomery. “We need to use evidence to help fix the horrific mistakes we’ve made over the last century.”
To beat the sceptics, the team at Happy City gathers evidence from psychology, neuroscience, public health and behavioural economics. They know that hospital patients who can see trees through their bedside windows heal faster than those who only see brick walls. They know that commuters at rush hour suffer more anxiety than fighter pilots or riot police facing angry mobs. They even know that the friendliest front gardens are precisely 10.6ft deep.
And they conduct their own research, particularly around Montgomery’s theory that the most important ingredient for human happiness is social connection. An experiment in Seattle found that passersby are four times more likely to help lost tourists on lively streets filled with lots of small shops than on pristine, but essentially characterless, blocks, where people tend to move more quickly.
“We think the kindness effect was a result of velocity,” says Montgomery. “People are nicer to each other when they move more slowly and have time to make eye contact.”
At the Project for Public Space conference in Vancouver from 12 to 15 September 2016, Happy City will host walking tours of the city. Participants will be hooked up to sensors that measure their physiological arousal, enabling scientists to test people’s physical and emotional responses to their surroundings, as they walk through community gardens or down dark alleys.
‘An explosion of interest’
But the real problem is that this kind of evidence rarely makes it outside academia. With one foot in research and another in urban planning, Happy City tries to bridge the gap between them. It is a consultancy, advising local governments, developers and any other organisations that have control over how cities grow, including the World Health Organisation.
Montgomery says he’s seen an “explosion of interest in the field” of happiness and urban planning over the past three years – and not just from Scandinavian countries. “I’m especially thrilled to see that property developers are embracing the wellbeing agenda,” he says.
Happy City has helped British Land, the UK’s largest real estate investment trust, to weave wellbeing principles into its new development practices.
“But we’re seeing an awakening in other parts of the world, too,” says Montgomery, referring to Ahura Builders, which invited Happy City to hack the designs for a community of 8,000 people in Punawale, India. “Our happiness interventions included breaking up imposing superblocks, investing in quiet streets that are safe and friendly for pedestrians and creating a village heart to which residents could walk and shop.”
Another project was based in Mexico City. Chaotic, crowded and with high levels of crime, it’s an unusual setting for the happiness agenda. But in the autumn of 2014 the local government’s innovation unit commissioned Happy City to do a three-day “happiness audit” of Colonia Doctores, a poor neighbourhood in the south-west of the city.
Dominguez, Happy City’s director of operations and sustainability, gathered together public officials, city planners, architects and – most importantly – local residents. On the first day they discussed key principles that influence wellbeing, such as access to nature and the ability to have positive social interactions on a daily basis.
“One of the key concerns in Mexico is safety. What people do when they’re concerned about their safety is to fortify,” says Dominguez. “Actually, one of the best things you can do is generate a sense of trust and calm.”
On the second day the group toured Colonia Doctores, applying the principles to physical aspects of the neighbourhood and on the third they presented their findings. Recommendations included opening a new museum and pedestrianising an area outside the local wrestling arena, turning it into a cultural corridor around Mexican wrestling. “That sense of community is good for their wellbeing,” says Dominguez.
‘Happiness is good for the bottom line’
One thing the Happy City team is really passionate about is making the business case for happiness. “Building healthier, happier places is not more expensive. In fact, these places save society money in the long run,” says Montgomery.