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City Design and Happiness Across the Lifespan

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All across the world, our cities are rapidly growing in size, and more work is needed to understand how the city environment influences the happiness and health of people across the lifespan.  For example, if older adults are to retain continuity and control over their daily life and live in a location of their choice, we need to consider transportation, recreational and cultural opportunities, and amenities that facilitate physical activity, social interaction, and access to destinations. With regard to young people, Richard Florida notes that talented, highly educated, and creative young people tend to cluster together in today’s modern cities, and are particularly concerned about the quality of life in their cities.

Previous research on happiness and city design highlights a distinction between the role of place and performance variables.  Place variables include residents’ ratings of how beautiful their city is, how proud they are to live there, and how easy it is to access amenities, green spaces, and public transportation.  Performance variables include residents’ ratings of the city’s basic services such as good schools, healthcare opportunities, safety from crime, and facilities serving the disadvantaged. Both place and performance variables influence the happiness of city residents. However, we know less about effects across the lifespan.

We recently examined if these effects of place and performance vary across the lifespan. Drawing upon a large-scale survey of 5,000 younger and older adults living in London, Berlin, New York, Paris, and Toronto, we hypothesised that both place and performance variables would be important for the happiness of city residents. We also hypothesised that performance variables would contribute more to happiness than place variables among older adults, as research suggests that older adults may require more resources to remain independent. Likewise, given that younger adults appear to value vibrant cultural and urban scenes, we hypothesised that the happiness of younger adults would depend more on place indicators.   

Younger residents are happier when they have easy access to theatres, museums, a variety of shops, convenient public transportation, parks, and sports facilities.

Our study findings were consistent with our hypotheses.  After statistically controlling for a number of other factors that affect happiness (i.e., income, self-rated health status, relationship status, employment status, and relations with community and friends), we found that the character and beauty of cities and the accessibility of amenities such as parks, public transportation, and recreational and cultural activities (i.e., place variables), as well as quality of government services associated with policing, schools and healthcare (i.e., performance variables) influence the happiness of city residents.  However, we also found that the happiness of younger city residents is more likely to be affected by place variables whereas for older residents, performance variables are more important.

The results of our study suggest that younger residents are happier when they have easy access to theatres, museums, a variety of shops, convenient public transportation, parks, and sports facilities. They are happier when they have options that enable them to experience the city culturally and socially, when they feel proud of their city, and when they perceive their city as beautiful. This means that to attract younger residents cities must create and maintain high quality, accessible place amenities.

Happiness for older adults is affected more by the perceived quality of government services in the city, such as safety from crime, good schools, and access to quality healthcare for children, the socially disadvantaged, elderly, disabled, or poor.

Happiness for older adults is affected more by the perceived quality of government services in the city.

The design of our cities requires collaboration among many groups including engineers, planners, architects, developers, business leaders and government policymakers, and thoughtful human decision-making can determine the success of cities in supporting residents’ happiness.  The overall performance of cities may become increasingly important as people age and their functional capacities decline. The environment becomes increasingly important in supporting independence and well-being as we age.  It is important that we consider residents of all ages in urban planning, and it is important that we consult with citizens in the design of well-being policies and city design projects. Our research findings come at a time when most cities around the world are experiencing massive growth and world leaders are increasingly using measurements of well-being to evaluate their culture and society.  Our work contributes to an emerging understanding that both place-making and policy-making matter for the happiness and health of people living in cities.

Simply put, it is thoughtful human decision-making – not random chance – determines the success or failure of cities to provide opportunities for residents to flourish and be happy. Making good decisions in this context amounts to a good investment in our future.


You can access the full journal article here

Michael Hogan is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. In his undergraduate years Michael was the Psychological Society of Ireland Young Psychologist of the Year (1994). He received this award for his research on the relationship between developmental automaticity and intelligence. Michael travelled to the US after his undergraduate degree and spent a year working in a Brain Injury clinic as a life skills trainer. He returned to Galway the following year to accept a PhD fellowship award. You can connect with him on Twitter @michaelhogannui 


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