Bringing Happy Cities to Life

When we think “smart”, our mind instantly connects it to “tech”. When we think future, our thoughts immediately ping artificial intelligence. When we discuss “innovation”, we imagine digital products.

There is no doubt about technology’s clout in transforming our today and shaping our tomorrow. Cities are heavily investing in massive networks and data collection machines to make urban living more sustainable, vibrant, safer and cleaner.

But what about cities that are happier? Healthier? More inclusive and vibrant? On this International Day of Happiness, let’s reflect on what makes a true city of wellbeing.

Canadian author Charles Montgomery is spot on when he writes in Happy City: “Cities must be regarded as more than engines of wealth; they must be viewed as systems that should be shaped to improve human wellbeing.”

Indeed technology is only one means to design resilient and inclusive cities. Cities need to rise above the tech noise to really weave the happiness factor into their urban design.

Finland, Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark and Singapore are often deemed as the happiest places to live on this planet.

Ever wondered why?

Because these are places that put people first. Their policies and services are designed to create cohesive communities and empower citizens.

The UN’s 2018 World Happiness Report charts Finland as the happiest nation in the world. Even though the country’s GDP is lower than its neighboring Nordic countries, Finland is considered to be the most stable, safest and best governed country in addition to being the least corrupt and socially progressive.

If people are the building blocks of happy countries, they must also be at the heart of our thinking on cities. After all, 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050.

When the OECD’s Better Life Index measures wellbeing and progress, they take into account the state of people’s minds instead of state-of-the-art infrastructure.

Indeed, there is no point building a multi-billion dollar business district if people need to spend hours in traffic to get to work every morning.

Designing cities of wellbeing is a multifaceted process, from affordable housing to work-life balance, through to life satisfaction and healthy lifestyles.

Cities are increasingly becoming the world’s innovation hubs and experimentation labs. So, how do we spur social and civic innovation to build happier cities?

For starters, break down the silos. The onus to build happy cities is not just on mayors, technologists or city designers. Cities must be co-constructed with social innovators, entrepreneurs, educators and civil society leaders – with or without technology.

Here in Canada a host of initiatives at national, regional and local levels are helping overcome a variety of challenges – with or without the help of technology. For instance, the Collective Impact Project is a great example of how collective action can be harnessed to improve living conditions and develop better neighborhoods. The initiative aims to achieve measurable and significant outcomes in the reduction of poverty in Montreal neighborhoods. The project is funded by multiple foundations and enable the nonprofit organization Centraide of Greater Montreal to invest in seventeen neighborhoods on the island.

We have to increasingly move toward compact cities with dense urban forms, where destinations are within reach and easily accessible. A study in 2007 clearly indicates the positive correlation between high population density and reduction in household vehicle population. Another advantage of compact cities is stronger social cohesion.

For instance, I simply love the concept of inter-generational residences launched by a construction consortium across various French cities in a bid to rekindle social cohesion. Social connectedness is the most powerful driver of human happiness. People with strong, positive relationships with family and friends are happier, healthier, and more productive – and that’s the key to design sustainable and truly happy cities of the future.

There are scores of examples around the world that are proof that the key to build happy and equitable cities is collaboration – and not technology. Collective action from all branches of society, government and business is necessary to foster wellbeing in cities. And that’s the only way we can truly turn our cities into spaces of comfort, health and happiness.