Soft-Edged Cities

New Values Like Purpose and Happiness Are Reshaping Urban Living — For the Better?

August 26, 2014

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Aristotle once famously remarked, “People gather in cities first for security, then for economic opportunity, and then stay for ‘the good life.’” In today’s Western societies, this pattern may have been reversed. It seems people now move to cities first and foremost for “the good life,” or, to be more precise, “a good life”: a life of purpose and happiness. But will they find it?

Purpose-seeking Millennials

One demographic that is often associated with this shift are Millennials, the age group between eighteen and thirty-three. A quick look at some stats shows that this generation obviously has a seminal role to play in our urban futures: while 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, 50 percent of it is also under 30 years of age. Millennials will represent 50 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2020 and 75 percent of the global workforce by 2030. For this new generation of workers, consumers and citizens, the choice to live in cities is no longer economic, but cultural [PDF]. Unlike their predecessors they move to cities for new opportunities that transcend wealth and self-interest: active lifestyles, sustainable living, like-minded communities and meaning. They pursue experiences that connect to social impact and greater purpose.

Millennials are looking for meaning and connection in cities. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Millennials look to cities for meaning and connection. (Courtesy of Marcel Hauri/Flickr)

This new sentiment is also altering Millennials’ expectation toward business: “sense of meaning” [PDF] is becoming their single most important indicator of a successful career. Purpose and social impact are moving to the core of business rather than being addressed through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) or non-profit arms. Some companies even become Benefit Corporations or B Corps, like Etsy or Warby Parker, with the triple bottom line incorporated in their legal structures. Moreover, many Millennials are leaving safe corporate jobs and launching their own purpose-driven start-ups, typically in cities. It seems like we are indeed entering an age of purpose, in fact, a whole new “purpose economy,” as social entrepreneur and author Aaron Hurst puts it, with more socially-minded “conscious capitalists” eager to do well by doing good. This purpose economy is reshaping our ideals of urban living, and policy-makers, urban planners and companies are all paying close attention. From Atlanta to Cleveland to Dallas, several U.S. cities are interested in trying on the mantle of a “Purpose City.”

Happy Cities

Purpose might be one key ingredient of a good urban life; happiness is another. While purpose and happiness are linked — “True happiness … is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose,” as Helen Keller wrote — happiness is in reality often the more appealing of the two, as it is less elusive and often considered more instantly (and mechanically) achievable.

Fueling this trend are behavioral economists and neuroscientists who have claimed some remarkable breakthroughs in the field of happiness research in the past few years. We know now not only that money doesn’t buy happiness, but a study published in Psychological Science last year also showed that happiness is specifically associated with the level of respect and admiration we receive from peers. Those who felt accepted, liked, included and welcomed in their local hierarchy were happier than those who were simply wealthier. Scholars have also found a positive correlation between happiness and self-employment in the U.S. and in Europe and identified mental health as the biggest contributor to happiness in all countries. Furthermore, a lack of perceived equality apparently decreases happiness levels. Compassion, kindness and (more so for men than for women) parenthood are all positively correlated to happiness. Finally, recent research claims that happier people earn more in their lifetime, are more productive and are better citizens. No wonder happiness is moving to the core of our economies — and consequently to the core of a high-quality city life.

Suburbs: soulless or solace? (Courtesy of Flickr)

Suburbs: soulless or solace? (Courtesy of LancerE/Flickr)

Rather than just viewing them as engines of wealth, many now regard cities as systems that can be smartly programmed to achieve happiness. A prominent ambassador of this new urban thinking is Charles Montgomery, who, in his book Happy City, intersects neuroscience and behavioral economics with urban design and planning. Montgomery explores the stimuli for feelings of wellbeing and contentment and how they might be applied in different spatial environments. He describes some interesting correlations between urban aesthetics and emotions: for example, how blank, cold spaces (the big-boxes so typical of malls and commercial outlets) suppress a sense of conviviality. He makes a case for dense urban living as a catalyst of happiness and wellbeing and dismisses suburban sprawl, the dispersed city, as a danger to “both the health of the planet and the well-being of our descendants.”

Montgomery’s claims are not uncontroversial. In a comprehensive rebuttal, John Muscat accuses him of ignoring the benefits of suburban life (noting that suburban growth, since 1940, has constituted almost all urban growth). He points to a Pew Research survey from 2011, for example, in which a far higher percentage of suburbanites rated their communities as “excellent,” compared to inner-city dwellers. Another study found that for each 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of people talking to their neighbors once a week rose 10 percent. According to Brookings Institute research, suburban areas generally also have substantially lower crime rates than “core cities.”

Social Inequity

This brings us to the issue of social inequity. How inclusive can the Purpose City be? And is the Happy City a luxury item only for those who can afford it? The forces of supply and demand have made housing in some of North America’s densest and arguably most attractive cities — San Francisco, Vancouver or New York — the least affordable. The Washington Post piquantly observed in a recent article: “The people designing your cities don’t care what you want. They’re planning for hipsters.” So-called “Luxury Cities,” the article argues, focus on the needs of the well-heeled, whereas fast-growing “Opportunity Cities” such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Salt Lake City or Phoenix, offer affordable housing and family-friendlier policies. In San Francisco, the backlash against what is increasingly perceived as a winner-take-all-city is palpable, and social tensions between bus-drivers and bus-riders, between all-access tech knowledge workers and those with limited access is rising. Diversity is shrinking, too. San Francisco’s black population is roughly half of what it was in 1970.

Moreover, income inequality is growing in Western societies. As we’ve learned from Thomas Piketty and his much-discussed book Capital in the 21st Century, wealth distribution is increasingly tilted towards the 0.1 percent of households, almost back to pre-industrial levels. The middle class is losing ground. According to the Pew study, Millennials in particular have higher levels of student loan debt, unemployment and poverty, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles. For the first time on record, a generation is economically regressing, rather than progressing. This raises the question: is the turn to a soft aspiration like purpose and happiness caused by “hard” economic factors? It would be interesting to conduct a study that looks at the correlation between economic downturns and the rise of alternative aspirations over the past fifty years.

Where Did the Romance Go?

Finally, one may ponder the fundamental philosophical question, whether such programmatic aspirations as purpose and happiness actually make cities attractive. In other words, purpose and happiness may not be accessible for everybody — and are they even desirable as primary urban attributes? Do we want to live in cities designed for purpose and happiness? Ironically, a too-rigid fixation on purpose and happiness might undermine the very urban qualities of cities.

Singapore: livable, but is it lovable? (Courtesy of Merlion444/Wikipedia)

Many New Yorkers will say that they’re “in love with their city” or at least have a love-hate relationship with it. Ask people in Aarhus, Geneva or Singapore, and it’s unlikely you’ll hear such extreme sentiments. Cities are places to experiment, to try ourselves, to stretch ourselves amidst serendipity, messiness and challenge, with strangeness and strangers in our face, a bump on every road. We might build purposeful and happy cities — but what if they are utterly boring? Will life be good in a city of do-gooders? Will we be able to experience happiness if we are constantly surrounded by its nudges? We might come to miss our old “sin cities” from time to time as we routinely go about our happy, purposeful lives.

Perhaps neuro-scientific stimuli, behavioral nudging, and “digital determinism” present our connected age’s version of the industrial age’s “great disenchantment.” Perhaps it is a myth to believe that optimizing something makes it better. Purpose and happiness: as our cities become smarter — more focused, more resourceful, and more efficient in catering to our needs — we might run the risk of depriving them of their very character. When everything is mapped, tracked, rated and easily accessible, our new norm might be the unhappy medium. When a city is found and found out, we might no longer search for its meaning. When comfort and coziness have softened our urban experience, we might get homesick for the friction, unpredictability and danger — the romance — that attracted us to the city in the first place.

Banner image courtesy of Kuba Bożanowski/Flickr.

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