Can a happy city fight climate change?
It’s not the kind of weapon most people think of using, but when you start thinking about it, it makes sense even if the cause-and-effect relationship is hard to plot on a chart.
What’s a happy city? In part, it’s one where people have lots of contact and connections with others. Not necessarily meaningful connections. Just your average, everyday nod of the head and the good-mornings you exchange as you walk your dog.
Soft connections, they’re called. And we don’t have enough of them. Mostly because we’re all in our own private bubble so much of the time.
When you live in a city that has wide streets and lots of cars, you don’t tend to spend much time hanging around outside on foot. When you don’t spend time hanging around outside on foot, you don’t have those short interactions with other people because they’re not hanging around outside on foot either.
You can still meet people, but usually that happens after you drive to the meeting place and park there. If you don’t have the means to drive — if you don’t have a car — then your opportunities to spend time with other people dwindle.
You’re lonely, don’t feel like you belong, and don’t get involved. You also tend to distrust people, because you don’t know them.
This fellow gets it. He wants cities to be designed, or redesigned, to encourage walkability and more contact among neighbours. There are all kinds of ways to do that, including by adding density to existing neighbourhoods, but one way in particular strikes me as something we could fix relatively easily.
Make more of our streets places where people on foot can hang out.
Imagine Meadowlands Drive. Well, OK. You don’t need to imagine it. You know what it looks like. It’s a nice enough street, with lots of various housing — some apartment buildings, some social housing, some detached homes, duplexes, etc. But you know what it doesn’t have? People hanging out, on foot or bicycle. And why not? Because it’s a raceway. Cars and buses drive by, and few of them respect the speed limit of 40km/h.
Why? Because Meadowlands is incredibly wide. There is easily enough room for five cars, maybe six if we squeezed by slowly. But the road is designed for one car each way. You have tons of space when you’re driving. How can you not be tempted to speed?
Roads represent 80% of the public space in an average North American city. That space ought to be for everyone, not just cars. Not necessarily everywhere, but where warranted.
If we took some portions of Meadowlands and narrowed it considerably, we could use the space on the side for hanging out. We could have benches, mini basketball hoops for the kids, a sheltered box with books donated by neighbours. Plants and flowers, maybe a small container garden for anyone to grow radishes. Yes, of course, that outdoors living space would have to be protected from traffic with concrete planters or barriers. If it didn’t feel safe enough, nobody would use it. But imagine a few planters with small trees or shrubs providing a screen between traffic and the space for humans, creating a small urban oasis a block’s length or so, where people might naturally mingle or just hang out in.
Why not go crazy and add outdoor furniture so people can have meetings there or eat their lunch?
Near where I live on Craig Henry (another residential street where the 40km/h speed limit is routinely ignored), there are huge medians in some places. Why not encircle them with barriers or fences, and create mini public spaces with, I don’t know, chess boards or mini climbing walls for toddlers? Why not encourage people to use space that is already public and not reserved for cars?
Yes, you bet it would make drivers more careful if they saw human beings everywhere around them. That’s sort of the point. Make drivers slow down, breathe deeply, and wish they could just get lost in a book on a bench instead of sitting in their cars.
Humans are social animals. Even the anti-social among us need contact with others to be our best selves. I know this because I’m solitary to a fault yet find myself going about my business with renewed energy after a stroll to my local Tim’s. Something about being outside, and just smiling to a stranger, brings the best in everyone.
I confess I don’t see the direct connection between a walkable happy city and climate change. Obviously if we walk more and drive less that’s a good thing. But I’m not sure how big an impact that would make. And I say so what. Happiness, human fulfilment ought to be goals on their own, and if it helps us reduce emissions, well, that’s a fantastic bonus.