We talk to New York’s chief planner Carl Weisbrod. Plus: can you measure the happiness of a whole city?
Can a whole city be happy? Or miserable? The link between where we live and our personal wellbeing has been well documented but the idea of a collective disposition is less established and understood.
Any Londoner who recalls the summer of 2012 when the Olympic Games touched down in the capital is sure to answer that, yes, a city can be happy; equally, when the unexpected results of the EU referendum were announced this summer they may well recall the feeling that the city was sad. It was even more pronounced for those living in New York in the weeks and months following the events of September 11.
Academics are beginning to grapple with measuring these collective urban frames of mind. “The average of individuals’ happiness is what we call ‘public mood’,” says Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist and the director of the Happiness Economics Research Organization at Erasmus University Rotterdam. “The public mood is measured by overt behaviour, the way in which people talk, what’s on social media and what’s in the press.”
Of course it’s palpably preferable to spend time in a city that feels upbeat, which raises an intriguing question: is there anything our mayors and city halls can do to improve the collective mood for the long-term?
The answer may be found in the city itself in terms of our connections to other people. Tellingly research has found that those urban-dwellers who spend a lot of time isolated in cars for long commutes report that they are less satisfied with their lives. While there may be several reasons for this dissatisfaction, a likely culprit is simply too much isolation from other people.
Local politicians may not be able to control extraordinary events but they can work to make environments that allow people to form further connections: providing better public transport to get people out of their cars; creating more public spaces and parks for whiling away the time; and allowing urban-planners to create mixed-use neighbourhoods that bring communities to life. Mayors, it seems, really can make you happy.
Public transport isn’t a particularly strong suit for Detroit, whose economic woes are partially tied to its ceaseless suburban sprawl. In fact the city once hosted one of the largest municipally owned tram systems in the US before General Motors dismantled it for the benefit of the automotive industry. In 1956 the last streetcar was pulled from Woodward Avenue, the central artery of the city. Now the streetcar is returning.
The Qline – a 5.3km-long streetcar line – is set to run in spring 2017, connecting the Downton, Midtown, New Center and North End districts to the Campus Martius Park. But for a city that measures 370 sq km, the Qline is only the beginning. Symbolically the streetcar could not have materialised at a better moment as residents, artists and businesses return – emergent from bankruptcy – at an unprecedented rate.
Security may be tight on the gates to the Gardens of Babur in Kabul but since the park was declared a protected national space in 2008 it’s had a soothing effect on the war-torn city. “Kabulis have access, fostering feelings of ownership,” says Elif Ensari Sucuoglu of Istanbul-based studio Iyiofis.
The design firm proposes that creating public space can also build peace by allowing different people to mingle. “Cultivating social relations in cities should not be seen as a luxury for people in conflict,” adds Sucuoglu. With Kabul as a case study, the proposal has been getting attention from policy-makers at the UN Development Programme.
After some 35 years working for the city, Carl Weisbrod was appointed as the chairman of New York’s City Planning Commission under mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014.
What is the state of affordable housing in New York?
The gap between the number of apartments that poor households can afford and the ones that are available is about half a million apartments. We’re investing $8bn [€7.1bn] over the next 10 years, together with a variety of zoning and neighbourhood strategies, to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. We’re two years into our plan now and we’re right on target: 40,000 units have been created so far.
How is the issue of integration unfolding?
More than three million of the 8.5 million people here were born abroad. There’s an ongoing debate about the exclusion of certain groups in the country but that masks the welcome that New York offers to everybody. It’s part of our culture and character.
But have you been struggling with the integration of migrant communities?
There are pockets that avoid integration but for the most part that hasn’t been the case. It’s largely due to our school system, an economy that can absorb people with different skills and the ability of our cultural institutions to feed off these new ideas that different people bring to city life. In New York 50 per cent of households speak a language other than English and that’s extraordinary.
New York’s installation of free wi-fi kiosks across the city has proved popular with the homeless, who reportedly loiter in order to stream films, TV and even pornography.