Happiness is vital for sustainable, productive cities

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What makes people happy is usually a topic that is as controversial as anyone’s opinion. While there are those who say cash is king, there are others who would never trade in their peace of mind for lofty material benefits. Anyway, while happiness is generally determined by one’s mental and emotional health, it is also influenced by some environmental factors.

Apparently, if you live in a large urban area like Nairobi or Mombasa, your happiness is bound to be influenced by the pace at which people walk, and the amount of open spaces in the vicinity.

Indeed, there is an emerging school of thought that says residents of well-planned cities are way happier and more productive than the inhabitants of cities with no meticulous planning.

According to Happy City, a Canadian organisation which makes the case for retrofitting cities for happiness, most urban infrastructure including streets, parks, shopping centres and housing estates can be designed to make people feel happier, behave better and be kinder.

Using evidence from psychology, neuroscience, public health and behavioural economics, Happy City observes that, for example, hospital patients who can see trees through their bedside windows heal faster than those who only see brick walls. The researchers also claim that commuters at rush hour suffer more anxiety than fighter pilots or riot police facing angry mobs, and that the friendliest front gardens are precisely 10.6 feet deep!

Let us take Nairobi County as a case study of for sustainable, purposeful city planning. For the last 20 years, the capital city has been expanding exponentially, but with no clear direction. Consequently, residents have now become accustomed to overcrowding, traffic snarl-ups, air and noise pollution, burst sewer pipes and crime.

Going by the arguments of Happy City, this explains reasons behind the ‘rudeness epidemic’ plaguing many Kenyans. You will agree with me that pathetic customer service has become a norm in many firms today, from small and me dium enterprises to blue chip bodies. Rudeness is also now rife in hospitality institutions like medical institutions and hotels where you expect nothing less than compassion and pampering, respectively.

Blame it on people’s state of mind at the time they get to work caused by waking up to dry water taps, power outages, burst sewer pipes and garbage in the estate, loud matatus, grid lock, street families et al. Basically, our cramped up cities have little fresh air; people want to get in and move out from the madness of it all as fast as possible.

The truth is that well organised towns with promenades, avenues, spacious walkways, wide spaces, parks, security and such social amenities have low crime and stress levels. Actually, that is the essence of gated communities, the current buzzword in real estate. It is also the reason why shopping malls are very popular. They are designed and built in a way that encourages loyalty from customers and businesses.

This is something that county governments, architects, developers and other institutions that have control over how cities grow need to adopt. There is no reason why the Eastlands part of Nairobi should not be restructured to give its residents more aesthetics where they live and work. Basically, happiness interventions include breaking up imposing superblocks, investing in quiet streets that are safe and friendly for pedestrians, and creating a village heart to which residents can walk and shop.

Why bother, you may ask. Well, according to Happier Cities, ‘happiness is good for the bottom line’. People who are socially connected are more resilient and more productive at work. Cities that encourage social interaction foster greater levels of creativity and trust, both of which correlate with growth of the GDP. Happiness and health is good for business.

By: Stephen ndegwa (Centre for Climate Change Awareness-www. centreforcca.org)

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