Friday, December 19, 2008


By Neal Peirce

It’s time to celebrate happiness. The chemistry of positive, joyful human interaction. Physical spaces that help lighten lives.

Seriously? What’s to be celebrated in a Christmas week that finds Americans wincing in the face of corporate collapses and the deep job losses of a roaring recession?

My answer: check some pretty amazing countervailing positives.

For example, election night in Chicago’s Grant Park. The jumbo screen suddenly confirms Barack Obama’s election as president. The surge of jubilation, of shared cheers and tears and wonderment of the thousands gathered, marks more than a simple political victory. It signals a rekindling of hope in the American nation, and what it might again be. The elation ricochets in seconds across a nation–and the world.

Another shift in 2008 could have lasting consequences for a happier society. Put briefly, it’s a new premium on quality spaces. It’s the death of our decades-old notion that all a city needs to do is offer developers and businesses cheap land and a complacent labor force, and that fresh investments and “success” will follow.

Today there’s palpable hunger for more liveliness and connectedness than isolated shopping malls, subdivisions or office parks typically offer. It’s for upbeat gathering spots, coffee shops, people-filled parks, in-town concert halls, outdoor art exhibits, farmers’ and Christmas markets. It’s the spark of a shared civic realm that such non-profits as Partners for Livable Communities and the Project for Public Spaces have been advocating for years–their message newly popular as an entertainment-jaded nation starts to wake up what links us, not what separates us.

All that was underway 2008. But the year delivered two developments that should doom the old order. First, last spring and summer’s soaring oil prices and the unfolding national mortgage foreclosure mess. Suddenly the unsustainability of America’s suburban growth model came into focus. “Drive ’til you qualify” became a dangerous way to pick a house. And now, even as the recession has pushed oil prices back down sharply, surging public transit use isn’t tapering off–it’s actually intensifying. And the latest Brookings Institution report shows the country’s total vehicle miles traveled, which actually began to start decline in 2007, are continuing a downward course.

Some of us may even be modifying our lifestyles–deliberately reducing local auto trips, making fewer vacation flights, for example–because we take seriously global climate and the shadow it throws over our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ lives. Just maybe, we’re starting to grasp the stakes of a global citizenship.

With hard-squeezed municipal budgets, this won’t be an easy time for towns and cities. But the “winners” among them will be those that raise the money (and/or volunteer help) to offer attractive city streets, well-kept parks, convenient libraries, events and festivals celebrating their diverse local cultures.

We’ll need, in short, to improve our shared space–our local “commons” –the theme of a new website, “Happiness itself is a commons to which everyone should have equal access,” writer Jay Walljasper contends there.

The most prominent global spokesperson for the theme of happiness in urban spaces is Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia. For the first 5,500 years of recognizable cities on earth, Penalosa notes, the streets were built chiefly for pedestrians. People of all classes accessed roadways essentially as equals.

That changed in the 20th century, as automobiles and trucks preempted public space, forcing pedestrians to street edges and in some developments eliminating sidewalks altogether. The problem is even more egregious in developing countries. The carnage is appalling: globally, roadway accidents kill roughly 1.2 million people each year, and millions more are grievously wounded.

Penalosa would have the urban space for automobiles strictly restrained. He’d place buses on exclusive lanes–like the TransMilenio system he created in Bogota–so that cities can be “the protective, beautiful, inclusive, stimulating places” they ought to be. His goal is a far call from classic civic boosterism; instead he talks of sharing the public realm as issues of safety, dignity, and respect, so that “more people around the world can live happier lives.”

In 2008 I heard more U.S. urban planners headed in the same direction, considering return of high-speed one-way city streets to calmer two-way traffic, or creating boulevards that include exclusive, safe lanes for pedestrians and bicycles.

Now the happiness cause has academic champions–James Fowler of the University of California-San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard Medical School. Using data from a 20-year study of 4,739 people, they identified a contagious power of happiness in social networks. And they found distance matters–the closer people live together, the more the happiness of some spreads to others.

“Happiness,” Fowler claims, “spreads more robustly than unhappiness.” Happy people tend to be more creative, productive, and healthier. And, Fowler adds, happiness seems to have a greater effect than money.


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