The strange factors that impact whether we're content where we live.
I am fascinated by the relationship between our cities and our mental and emotional well-being. The relationship of urban form to physical health is finally getting some of the attention it deserves, but how the shape of our communities and neighborhoods affects mental health and the much more elusive concept of happiness remains under-explored.
New research, however, provides some intriguing clues. In particular, a fascinating study authored by a team from West Virginia University and the University of South Carolina Upstate, and published last year in Urban Affairs Review, examined detailed polling data on happiness and city characteristics from ten international cities.
In an article titled "Understanding the Pursuit of Happiness in Ten Major Cities," the authors concluded that good urbanism contributes positively to happiness:
We find that the design and conditions of cities are associated with the happiness of residents in 10 urban areas. Cities that provide easy access to convenient public transportation and to cultural and leisure amenities promote happiness. Cities that are affordable and serve as good places to raise children also have happier residents. We suggest that such places foster the types of social connections that can improve happiness and ultimately enhance the attractiveness of living in the city.
As I noted last June, in the U.S., "the pursuit of Happiness" is listed in the first sentence of our Declaration of Independence, right along life and liberty as an inalienable right of all people. That’s a lofty dose of respect from the founders of our republic. Shouldn’t it get the same respect from those of us in the business of pursuing environmental quality?
Trust me: it doesn’t.The more respondents felt their city was beautiful, clean, and safe, the more likely they were to report being happy.
There are a lot of reasons why this is so, but surely one of them is that happiness is viewed by just about everyone outside the mental health field as highly subjective. And it is certainly difficult to measure. The effect of environmental factors on happiness is more difficult still, notwithstanding some intriguing efforts in the country of Bhutan and the cities of Victoria, Seattle, and Bogata. The concept of "healing cities," which I profiled recently, also appears to be on the case, taking a holistic view of health that includes "physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual needs."
The new academic study, kindly forwarded to me by Kevin Leyden, one of its authors, attempts to approach the subject with scientific rigor. Leyden and his colleagues believe that city attributes do indeed make a difference and that, as a result, "happiness and its pursuit ... is a subject that should be of concern to scholars of urban places and urban policy."
Of course, city aspects are not alone in influencing happiness, and neither Leyden nor I would claim otherwise. Leyden cities a "Big Seven" group of factors recognized by prior research as most substantially affecting adult happiness: wealth and income (especially as perceived in relation to that of others); family relationships; work; community and friends; health; personal freedom and personal values.
Johnny Vulkan/Creative Commons
The researchers drew from an extensive quality of life survey undertaken by Gallup in 2007 for the government of South Korea. Approximately 1,000 people were surveyed from each of ten cities: New York, London, Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, Milan, Berlin, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. Respondents self-reported their overall degree of happiness (measured on a scale of 1 to 5) along with their degree of agreement with a range of statements designed to tease out additional factors.
Leyden’s team examined the findings, looking for statistically significant correlations. They found confirmation of the Big Seven factors, but also variations that could not be explained by the Big Seven. Examining additional findings from prior research along with data from the Gallup study, they concluded that a feeling of connectedness was a key factor in predicting happiness, and posit that the extent to which urban design fosters – rather than inhibits – that feeling may be an important additional determinant of happiness:
Do connections with place affect happiness? Does the design of the city and its neighborhoods and the way those places are maintained have an effect on happiness?
We hypothesize that the way cities and city neighborhoods are designed and maintained can have a significant impact on the happiness of city residents. The key reasons, we suggest, are that places can facilitate human social connections and relationships and because people are often connected to quality places that are cultural and distinctive. City neighborhoods are an important environment that can facilitate social connections and connection with place itself.
But not all neighborhoods are the same. Some are designed and built to foster or enable connections. Other are built to discourage them (e.g., a gated model) or devolve to become places that are antisocial because of crime or other negative behaviors. Increasingly, researchers and practitioners have become aware that some neighborhood designs appear better suited for social connectedness than others.
The Gallup study examined a number of questions directly related to the built environment, including the convenience of public transportation, the ease of access to shops, the presence of parks and sports facilities, the ease of access to cultural and entertainment facilities and the presence of libraries. All were found to correlate significantly with happiness, with convenient public transportation and easy access to cultural and leisure facilities showing the strongest correlation.
The statistical analysis also included questions related to urban environmental quality apart from cities’ built form, and produced additional significant correlations:
The more respondents felt their city was beautiful (aesthetics), felt it was clean (aesthetics and safety), and felt safe walking at night (safety), the more likely they were to report being happy. Similarly, the more they felt that publicly provided water was safe, and their city was a good place to rear and care for children, the more likely they were to be happy.
Among these, the perception of living in a beautiful city had the strongest correlation with happiness. Curiously, though, the researchers found that the perception of "clean streets, sidewalks, and public spaces" actually had a somewhat negative association with happiness. Happy people apparently find their urban environments both beautiful and messy. (Well, the survey did include New York.)
Statistics geeks will find much to pore over in this intriguing and meticulously reported study. I find that it provides empirical strength to those of us who believe that “the environment” is concerned not just with traditional pollution or land conservation (both of which remain important) but also with what and where we build; and not just with parts per billion of this or that but also with the quality of human relationships and well-being. I believe the authors of the Declaration of Independence would agree.
This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.
About the Author
Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America.
Clean Cities is a government-industry partnership in the United States that provides regional coalitions with information and incentives from the United States Department of Energy (USDOE), a large collection of technical data and resources, and coordinated strategies and resources they can leverage to obtain maximum petroleum reduction. The Clean Cities partnership consists of 87 coalitions that work with 5,700 local stakeholder programs that have helped avoid the usage of over 2 billion US gallons (7,600,000 m3) of petroleum, put more than 500,000 AFVs on the road, and played a role in the construction of over 3,000 alternative refueling stations since 1993.
The state of Indiana contains two designated Clean Cities coalitions: South Shore Clean Cities and Central Indiana Clean Cities. South Shore Clean Cities serves all of Northern Indiana which includes the following 18 counties: Benton, DeKalb, Elkhart, Fulton, Jasper, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Lake, LaPorte, Marshall, Newton, Noble, Porter, Pulaski, St. Joseph, Starke, Steuben and Whitley.
Chartered on June 15, 1999, South Shore Clean Cities is a government/industry partnership designed to help reduce petroleum consumption in the transportation sector. Located in an area that has suffered the devastating environmental impact of the industrial practices of the late 19th through the mid 20th centuries, South Shore Clean Cities is dedicated to preserving and revitalizing Northern Indiana by promoting the use of clean fuels and clean vehicles technology.
September 6, 2011 - Environmentalist touts Yellowstone's eco success story
September 20, 2011- South Shore Clean Cities award electric vehicles to northern Indiana cities.
October 16, 2011 - All charged up, but nowhere to plug
December 16, 2011 - Tube City IMS Brings Lean and Green Locomotive to Northwest Indiana
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. Better known as simply "Metro," the authority provides transit services to the metropolitan area in and around Washington, D.C. The authority has a fleet of 1,500 buses, including 74 hybrid electric buses and Metro plans to have nearly 500 more hybrid-electric buses by 2012. Vice Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who last year committed to convert the entire Maryland Transit Administration bus fleet to hybrid-electric buses by 2014. Maryland has already accelerated its purchase of hybrid-electric buses with the help of Recovery Act funds (Clean Cities).
The State of Tennessee contains 2 designated Clean Cities coalitions: the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition (http://www.ETCleanFuels.org/), and Middle Tennessee Clean Fuels (http://middletncleanfuels.org/). Both were designated in 2004. A third coalition—-West Tennessee Clean Fuels—-is forming (http://www.cfwt.tn.org). Many fleets in Tennessee use alternative fuels like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Eastman Chemical Company, UPS, Waste Management, cities like Sevierville, Kingsport, Memphis and Crossville, and the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation (a significant biodiesel user in the state). As of 2012, Tennessee has about 30 public stations where E85 is available, and the same where B5, B20 or higher blends like B99 are available. Tennessee's first public CNG station opened in Wartburg, Tennessee in late 2010, and another 5 stations have opened Memphis, Nashville, Huntsville, Athens and Sevierville. As of October 2014, 4 more are expected to be completed in 2015.
The East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition holds quarterly coalition meetings in Knoxville on the first Thursday of February, May, August and November. See the Website for meeting information. http://www.ETCleanFuels.org/
The State of Wisconsin has one Clean City coalition designated in 1994 called Wisconsin Clean Cities (http://www.wicleancities.org/). Serving the entire state of Wisconsin, WCC has provided education and outreach regarding alternative fuels, vehicles, infrastructure, fuel efficiency improvements and idle reduction. WCC has been instrumental in securing federal and state funding to implement many projects across the state of Wisconsin. Since 2010 WCC has participated in hundreds of events and public engagements statewide. In 2013, WCC reported a reduction of nearly 12 million in gasoline gallon equivalents due to the increase of alternative fuels and technologies. WCC also reported a greenhouse gas emission reduction at 57.9 tons in 2012, a 99% increase from the previous year.
Empire Clean Cities
Empire Clean Cities is the Clean Cities coalition for New York City & the Lower Hudson Valley (Westchester, Rockland, & Putnam Counties). ECC was incorporated in 2007 and was formerly known as New York City & Lower Hudson Valley Clean Cities. ECC has been tasked with providing support and management skills necessary to advance the regions economic, environmental, and energy security by building local public-private partnerships towards promoting the use of technologies and practices that reduce petroleum consumption. In 2012 ECC introduced Empire Green Fleets a metric used to evaluate the overall impact of public and private fleets operating in the region. ECC also launched a Green Food Trucks initiative in 2012. With the popularity of food trucks in NYC growing ECC conducted an investigation on the feasibility of promoting the use of biodiesel in these trucks. http://www.empirecleancities.org/
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
On 2009 Earth Day, Vice President Joe Biden announced the availability of $300 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for state and local governments and transit authorities to expand the nation's fleet of clean, sustainable vehicles and the fueling infrastructure necessary to support them. The Clean Cities Alternative Fuel and Advanced Technology Vehicles Pilot Program will support at least 30 projects involving alternative fuels or advanced vehicles. Technologies eligible to be funded include a number of different light- and heavy-duty vehicles, including hybrid, plug-in hybrid electric, hydraulic hybrid, electric, fuel cell, and compressed natural gas vehicles. In addition, projects can support refueling infrastructure for alternative fuels, including biofuels and natural gas. Other efforts eligible for funds include public awareness campaigns and training programs on alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles and infrastructure. The program requires a 50% cost share from participants.
The Southeast Propane Autogas Development Program is the largest Clean Cities alternative fuel vehicle conversion deployment program in history. The Program is administered by Virginia Clean Cities at James Madison University and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. The Program is converting fleet vehicles from gasoline to autogas in the Southeastern United States. The project received an $8.6 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
While Clean Cities includes a scattering of funding for electrification and charging stations, most of it is for carbon-based liquid fuels or non-pluggable hybrids. Clean Cities federal funding in 2010-2011 was set up with a majority of the funding favoring plug-in EVs and HEVs. However, the amount of funding and focus of that funding ebbs and flows between the alternative fuels over time due to advances in technology and interest in those fuels. CNG and propane were more popular in the early 2000s, the biofuels ethanol and biodiesel took center stage in the mid 2000s, and electric vehicles have taken the limelight most recently (2010–2011).