On Density and Happiness 2


Springing off from my last post (here) in which I identified an “ideal” density of 3800ppl/km2, I decided to directly chart population density against happiness for a selection of cities that belong to the following three categories: most livable, most global and most emerging.

A clear converging tendency can be observed, almost as a funnel, reaching to that “ideal density” zone. From this tendency and the selection of cities we can extract a series of observations that relate to some of the issues that we have seen in class:

Maturity: Something that distinguishes the most livable cities from the most emerging ones is their maturity. This means, that most of the cities that stand on the furthest happiest side have gone through a process of design iteration in which infrastructures, systems, organizations, and regulations have been tested over and over again adapting to changing conditions and achieving optimal efficiency.

Decentralization: Melbourne, Auckland, Munich, Zurich, Vancouver, Barcelona… these are some of the top ranked most livable cities, yet, they are not capitals or huge metropolis. When directing this observation towards the developing world, it might imply that there is great potential in second-tier cities absorbing some of the urban growth that tends to be centralized in megacities. An example of a second-tier city that has demonstrated its potential is the city of Medellin, Colombia.

Diversity: When talking about green field cities we often found that one entity or reason behind their development. This presents a high risk that might not be apparent when the economy is at a euphoric growth rate, yet we have a long list of cities that have been abandoned when their main “feeder” has disappeared or when the economic conditions have declined. To anticipate for that it is important to promote diversity at every single level.

Human-centered design: Copenhagen or Melbourne vs Chongqing or Shanghai –while the most livable cities are vocally striving for quality of life and creating a fertile environment for economic growth, the emerging ones are often aggressively just growing. Whether it’s a public or a private initiative or development, is it possible to include people as one of the main factors to take into account? There has been a lot of talk about happy employees working better – is it possible to think about happy citizens also creating better economic and livable environments? How do we quantify it?

Government in the background: Most of the livable cities are not (or not anymore) top-down cities; instead the government has established the infrastructure for economic growth and for private initiatives to take place.

In class it has been argued that the biggest opportunities lie in green field cities. Yet I would argue that it depends on which kind of opportunities – if it’s about social impact, 55% of the population already live in cities (1); if it’s about sustainability impact, 70% of the world’s greenhouse emissions (GHG) come from the existing built environment (2); if it’s about financial opportunities, one would have to consider the risks associated with the complexity of the creation of vibrant new cities… Intervening in existing socioeconomic and political contexts might have big barriers of entry, but the benefits are arguably more significant.

(1) http://www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm

(2) Masdar and Tianjin: Eco-Cities case by John D. Macomber


2 thoughts on “On Density and Happiness 2

  1. This is such an interesting topic that I went back and reread your original blog post.

    While I think that you have identified a very intriguing trend (this “ideal density”), I think that you might actually be attributing too much to this one metric. It is not clear from your post how you measure Happiness (sorry I didn’t see it in either blog post)? How does it differ from GDP per capita? For, when looking at the relative happiness of the cities above, I can’t help but to notice the high and low happiness areas are correlated with high and low income countries. And, as you identified in your original blog post the below factors are mostly correlated with good governance and the successful deployment of government dollars.

    “Although there is much debate about the criteria behind these reports, they have to do with very high ratings on safety/crime, quality of architecture, public transportation, urban design, business conditions, environmental issues and pro-active policy developments.”

    I think an interesting follow-on analysis to conduct would be to plot the developing world cities identified against each other and smaller second tier cities in their countries – so comparing Mumbai to Bangalore, Mangalore and Chennai – instead of taking a set of cities that are located within countries without high income per capita or a strong foundation of good governance. This would better prove out your point about the potential value of 2nd tier cities especially in the developing world. Moreover, I am not quite sure if the data that you currently evaluate totally holds to that trend in the developed world: look at Osaka and Tokyo, Sydney and Melbourne etc.

    Another potential interesting avenue of research is around the variation in happiness between cities of relatively similar population density. For example, why are Toronto, NYC and Chicago so much less happy than Munich, Zurich and Copenhagen despite similar population densities? I was actually most surprised by the number of cities that clustered around the line of “ideal density” that had such varying happiness levels. Maybe density is just a hygiene factor …

    And, finally, is happiness the right measure? If so why don’t we spend more time analyzing Bhutan and their concept of Gross National Happiness?

  2. I really like your point about diversity. I think both diversity in terms of industry as well as in terms of the type of people who live in the city should be considered. What struck me about the sustainable cities we’ve studied is that people diversity is not thought about enough. Even in the last class regarding NYC, the city seems to be much more focused on providing for the new (largely upper class) people coming into the city in than on making sure it creates economic opportunity for the middle and lower class people that already live there. Then there are cities like Masdar, which seem to be simply havens for the rich. It is the poorest and least educated people that will be moving in large numbers from rural areas into second tier cities and megacities in the future. Understanding how to employ and provide housing and services for these people will be critical to the success of future cities. Developing infrastructure for educated, upperclass people and their businesses must be done in tandem with developing infrastructure for the lower class people that will work in factories and do critical service jobs for the city.

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