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The Happy City

The Happy City

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

This month, Kuwait is hosting a symposium on the subject of “Happiness in the City”. The event will provide a unique platform for cultural, creative and technical minds from the UK and the Gulf to explore the issue of how our built environments can be designed to promote happiness and wellbeing. The symposium has been organised by the RIBA in conjunction with the DiT.

Using the fast-paced redevelopment of Kuwait City as a reference, the symposium will examine how best to support the wellbeing of our cities and the happiness of the people who live in them, work in them, and visit them. Kuwait neighbourhoods and roads were once intertwined with the fabric of society; bringing people together in public spaces and allowing for interactivity. Streets were narrow and shaded and that provided the realm for interaction, but overtime these have been lost through the widening of streets to accommodate vehicles and modern buildings.

The City began to rigidly organise itself entirely around one way of moving - cars - which took precedence over everything else. People are no longer interacting with each other in a positive way. Kuwait urban residents have been denied the opportunity to enjoy the city’s simplest daily pleasures: walking on convivial streets, sitting around in public and watching children playing happily on the streets. They have become isolated from each other and this experience has made them less happy than before.

In 2017, I wrote an article for a RIBA publication on the Future of Architecture in which I imagined the Roman Emperor Tiberius revisiting Rome or any another western city 2000 years later. My assertion was that he would find incredible changes in our buildings, in our technology, in our transportation, communications etc. but he would find less change in us as people. We might be taller, generally better educated and probably more travelled but with broadly similar hopes and fears - a need to love and be loved, to protect and nurture, and the same capacity for harm (although increased with more advanced weapons).

But the kind of spaces to which we are attracted has also probably changed very little. The Roman courtyard, intimate spaces and civic spaces for larger events and gatherings still evoke similar human responses 2000 years later. The fact that our cities have changed so much is due more to accommodating the demands of the motor car and different requirements for real estate than our development as a species.

Instead of getting better at designing places and spaces for people we have, since the start of the industrial revolution, been designing largely for function and commerce, not to uplift the human spirit. It’s not that we are short of information; we have more research available than ever about how we respond to our environment.

It’s not just the physical environment which is changing. Technology and the acceleration in the demands on our time are taking a toll. As an architect 30 years ago, a query from a building site would arrive in the post and I was given 14 days in which to answer it. Now I am lucky if I am given 14 minutes. The pace of life is unrelenting and this is bringing immense pressures. This is not only the only reason that mental health is the Architects Benevolent Society’s major concern.

Aecom’s Brisbane office recently undertook a survey on wellbeing. They surveyed GP attendance for heart problems, diabetes and anxiety and found there was a direct correlation between environmental improvements, such as increased landscaping and tree planting, and improved health.

We need more studies like this so we can monetise the effect of good design implementation; the cost of these works is a small percentage of the health care and loss to society of the dis- benefits. We will then be able to put a value rather than a cost on trees and plants.

Now that modern neuroscience can show us how our brains respond in certain situations we can evaluate happiness more certainly. If being happy was the only goal, we have pharmaceutical solutions. Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World” introduced “Soma” into the water supply to ensure that all citizens were happy. But do you not need to feel unhappy sometimes so that you know what happiness is? Unhappiness can be caused when there is a gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us. This can be real or perceived. We set our own values of worth and tell our own story. Health and fitness are important but also being humble and not taking life too seriously. To appreciate the randomness of some actions both our own and of others. Making a contribution to society rather than taking from it is the key.

There are three excellent TED talks on the subject of Happiness. One from Robert Waldinger “What makes a good life” documents the results of a 75 year old study of over 720 men. The results in short were not wealth or fame (though some had attained one or both) but connectivity, friends, social circles and community. A sense of belonging. Ingrid Fetell Lee’s “Where Joy Lives and how to find it” in 2018 stresses that the pursuit of joy is as important as the more difficult pursuit of happiness. Lastly, Emily Estahari Smith 2015 “There’s more to life than being happy” says that seeking the meaning of life is more important than seeking happiness and suggests four pillars which bring meaning.

With much more knowledge at our fingertips and greater awareness about wellbeing and mindfulness, we still seem to be experiencing more cases of anxiety and depression. The stresses of modern life and the demands of constant communications seem to be a major influence. Or perhaps we are openly talking about the issues more. For my parents' generation and certainly theirs before them there was barely a mention of mental illness. Sharing and caring is much better understood but we still have much more to learn and more empathy to display; being as sympathetic to unseeable mental conditions as we are to the more physical injuries. What we need therefore is more data from more research into the effect of our environment on both our physical and mental wellbeing. It is hoped that the Kuwait symposium will raise the profile to facilitate this research.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Related Thoughts

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.