Friday, December 19, 2014

Happier Cities (by Richard Palmer)

Guest Post: Richard Palmer

Richard is an engineer by training, a consultant by profession, and an ecologist at heart. He writes a blog called 'The Pointy End of Sustainability' where he discusses sustainable design in future cities. We have known each other since happy days in Smuts Hall at the University of Cape Town where many long discussion were held over hours of procrastination in a very happy dining hall. I can't recreate the actual dining hall, but I am trying my hardest over social media to try and get some of the awesome exchange of ideas going. Both of us are not the same as we were when we first had Wednesday Pizza. Even though we now find ourselves literally on the opposite of the world (in London and Sydney), we can continue to tease, challenge, question and disagree with each other. Rich is a fascinating guy who knows a thing or two about awesome design. I asked him to chat about happier cities. Get some banter going with him on twitter @richpalmeris.

Rich enjoying the simple joys


Happier Cities
by Richard Palmer

Cities are incredible things - perhaps humanity's crowning achievement on this planet; they contain some of the very best (and the very worst) of us, condensed. I am a sustainable urbanist. - I believe cities offer our best shot at a sustainable future. They create the conditions for culture, innovation and interaction that are so core to our society.

For some, cities are a necessary evil to achieve the financial and career goals that deliver the fulfilment we've been conditioned to aspire to. Commuting. Traffic. Crowds. Ugly buildings. Concrete. Highways. Fly-overs. Slums. Crime. Fear. All tolerated for the cash.

For others, cities contain what makes life worth living. Culture. Architecture. Bars. Restaurants. Exciting opportunities. Serendipitous encounters. Education. Wealth. Anonymity. And People, People, People - the sheer human delight, need, craving for connection to other people.

And for others still, cities represent a pathway out of rural poverty entrapment. A chance at a better life. Jobs. Education. Services. Opportunity. For them and their families. Billions of rural poor swelling the emerging mega-cities of our future.

So obviously, creating happier cities exists at many levels. To increase happiness broadly, cities should cater to each of these and more. But how?

I think most fundamentally, creating happier cities is about improving access to them. Housing affordability, security and mobility. Rules that allow for informal engagement with society; trading, living, playing and learning. Making life in cities as accessible as possible to those who wish to live in them would be the biggest thing I can think of to make cities happier en masse. Critical to this is how we provide core services to slums; security, utilities and sanitation. Allowing people to light their homes and cook their food without threat of fire or asphyxiation, to shit with dignity and drink water without fear.

At a more personally familiar level - that of the young(ish) professional with a family: access to world class work opportunities balanced with liveability (such as effective public transit, high quality green space and walkability). In short, providing the benefits of places like New York and Tokyo while mitigating some of the lifestyle impacts that often go with them. [Aside: There's a good post on assessing balance city performance here.]

And then there's a level of cultural engagement and aesthetic appreciation of ones surroundings that lifts the spirit and connects us to other people.

Excellent design - architecture, open space and public art.

Opera, music and support for the performing arts.

Awesome neighbourhoods, retaining some edginess (Woodstock or Muizenberg in Cape Town or Braamfontein in Joburg or what I understand Camden and Brixton once were in London), but also allowing for renewal and growth. Honoring history and community without stagnation.

Somewhere beautiful to think, to play, to share, to run, to eat, to drink, to love and to party.

So my happier city? To know that everyone has safe lighting and heat, access to clean water and a toilet with some privacy; affordable public transport and walkable neighbourhoods; flexible rules; awesome, edgy, creative neighbourhoods; beautiful buildings and parks; kick-ass jobs; a global reputation and a climate that lets me make my London-based friends jealous.

Rich and his family live in Sydney


In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at
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