What are we most proud of about the city we live in? What does it mean to live a good life? What are the things that if we don’t do them, we will no longer have the city we want?
These are some of the questions I grappled with at the Creative Cities Network conference last week in Kelowna. At this conference, people came from cities all across Canada. We were artists and elected officials, city planners, and members of arts councils and other arts organizations.
In a workshop I attended led by urban theorist Charles Montgomery, we were asked to arrange ourselves according to how happy we were with our city. I stood, almost alone, in the happiest category. When Charles asked where I was from and I said, “Nelson!” — everyone in the room groaned and mumbled “That explains it.”
We then learned about the impact our built environment has on our happiness. Turns out the fields of behavioural economics, public health, neuroscience, and psychology all have studies pointing to which elements create happiness in urban design.
These elements include: close proximity to nature (people who look out their windows at green stuff are healthier, kinder, smarter, more hopeful, and less violent), shorter commutes (the longer a person’s commute, the less happy they are with their entire life, not just their commute), not living in a high-rise or suburb, few sharp angles and harsh lines in buildings (apparently these activate our fight or flight response), more brick, more bikes, more quiet, slow cars, gardening, high levels of trust in neighbours, and eclectic streetscapes.
The ultimate determinant of happiness, though, is social connection. It’s not that things like money and health don’t matter — of course they do — it’s that all data points to social connection mattering more. And it doesn’t even have to be a profound connection — apparently even superficial contact with others cheers us up and helps create a sense of wonder and trust … possibly more than spending time with family and friends (!!).
Armed with a vast list of what makes for happiness-generating urban design we were turned loose in a Kelowna neighbourhood to perform a happiness audit. Did the neighbourhood’s design promote equality, accessibility and tolerance? Foster a sense of belonging? Provide opportunities to linger and encounter each other? Offer opportunities to live, work, shop, grow and lounge together? Did it encourage a sense of play, pride of place and empowerment?
Nelson scores high when it comes to many of the mentioned criteria — from our tree-lined residential streets to our beautiful brick downtown bustling with activity. Some of our wealth in happiness-generation is a fact of geography — hemmed in by mountains and a lake we’re unable to sprawl far. Some is rooted in our history — as with our classic architecture. But a lot of it has to do with how we live and work together. Our dense commercial downtown and vibrant cultural institutions like the Capitol and Civic Theatres, the Oxygen Art Centre, our rec centre and music venues all lead us to bump into friendly faces again and again … in the grocery store, on the way to the coffee shop or library or movie theatre, and it’s these micro-connections we experience throughout our day that can uplift us.
Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design is a fun, engaging book and quick read. I recommend it if you’re curious about the relationship between happiness and our environments.
I also attended a workshop on the power of placemaking (residents coming together to create public art in their neighbourhood) with Kate MacLennan from Halifax. I learned about the benefit of hiring artists to work with city works staff on infrastructure projects from keynote speaker Cath Brunner. You can check them out yourself: For Placemaking in Halifax, follow the link here and for Brunner’s extraordinary work with creative infrastructure and more, click here.
Nelson city councillor Anna Purcell shares this space weekly with her council colleagues.