Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happier Cities

Cities are incredible things - perhaps humanity's crowning achievement on this planet; they contain some of the very best (and the very worst) of us, condensed. I am a sustainable urbanist - I believe cities offer our best shot at a sustainable future. They create the conditions for culture, innovation and interaction that are so core to our society.

For some, cities are a necessary evil to achieve the financial and career goals that deliver the fulfillment we've been conditioned to aspire to. Commuting. Traffic. Crowds. Ugly buildings. Concrete. Highways. Fly-overs. Slums. Crime. Fear. All tolerated for the cash.

For others, cities contain what makes life worth living. Culture. Architecture. Bars. Restaurants. Exciting opportunities. Serendipitous encounters. Education. Wealth. Anonymity. And People, People, People - the sheer human delight, need, craving for connection to other people.

And for others still, cities represent a pathway out of rural poverty entrapment. A chance at a better life. Jobs. Education. Services. Opportunity. For them and their families. Billions of rural poor swelling the emerging mega-cities of our future.

So obviously, creating happier cities exists at many levels. To increase happiness broadly, cities should cater to each of these and more.

But how?

I think most fundamentally, creating happier cities is about improving access to them. Housing affordability. Security and mobility. Rules that allow for informal engagement with society; trading, living, playing and learning. Making life in cities as accessible as possible to those who wish to live in them would be the biggest thing I can think of to make cities happier en masse. Critical to this is how we provide core services to slums; security, utilities and sanitation. Allowing people to light their homes and cook their food without threat of fire or asphyxiation, to shit with dignity and drink the water without fear.

At a more personally familiar level - that of the young(ish) professional with a family: access to world class work opportunities balanced with liveability (such as effective public transit, high quality green space and walkability). In short, providing the benefits of places like New York and Tokyo while mitigating some of the lifestyle impacts that often go with them. [Aside: There's a good post on assessing balanced city performance here.]

And then there's a level of cultural engagement and aesthetic appreciation of ones surroundings that lifts the spirit and connects us to other people.

Excellent design - architecture, open space and public art.

Opera, music and support for the performing arts.

Awesome neighborhoods, retaining some edginess (Woodstock or Muizenberg in Cape Town or Braamfontein in Joburg or what I understand Camden and Brixton once were in London), but also allowing for renewal and growth. Honoring history and community without stagnation.

Somewhere beautiful to think, to play, to share, to run, to eat, to drink, to love and to party.

So my happier city?

To know that everyone has safe lighting and heat, access to clean water and a toilet with privacy; affordable public transport and walkable neighborhoods; flexible rules; awesome, edgy, creative neighborhoods; beautiful buildings and parks; kick-ass jobs; a global reputation and a climate that lets me make my London-based friends jealous.