Much is being made of cities right now and the importance of the urban center as a solution to humanity’s ills: TED gave its prize to The City, people got up in arms about what we spend on rural post offices, and green living is oriented mainly at people who live nowhere near the green. But for all the talk of what we can do with cities to improve the lives of people, I think people are generally missing the boat on the most important problem we need to solve if we believe that cities will be the new center of life for most people. It isn’t transportation, or green space, or jobs – its happiness.
In study after study, psychologists have shown that living in cities is generally pretty bad for people, mentally speaking. While it does make them smarter (possibly due to exposure to different kinds of diversity of experiences), it doesn’t increase their well-being, and if anything it has significant drawbacks for happiness. The first step to towards planning the city of the future is recognizing that making its citizens happy will be the greatest challenge, and it is one of the challenges that we know the least about.
There is a startling dearth of comprehensive research about the “why” of the city-unhappy link. We have been good about cataloging the various ways in which it gets expressed, but we don’t know that much about why it happens and even less about potential solutions. While we’re busily out there employing city planners and green architects and transportation experts, very little of the current boom of funding and interest is getting allocated to the basic problem of figuring out how to make cities mentally livable, not just physically livable.
Now at some level, those may be the same things: if we make better transportation, people will be happier. More green spaces, more happiness. But without stepping back and taking happiness as an explicit, quantifiable outcome of urbanism projects, I worry that we will create cities in which everyone could live…and no one wants to.