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Do you want to help build a happier city?

About the author

Daniele Quercia is a computer scientist and researcher at Yahoo Labs in Barcelona.

  • Happy feat
    Large cities are built for many things, like convenience, function and networks. But should planners also pay attention to building happiness into urban environments? (Thinkstock)
  • Pleasure principle
    What do people consider to be a beautiful city, a city that makes them happy, and how can this knowledge be integrated into urban planning? (Thinkstock)
  • Open thinking
    Greenery, space and red-brick houses tend to make people more happy. (Getty Images)
  • Other side of tracks
    On the other hand, records of London Underground trips suggest that the more socially deprived an area is, the fewer passengers visit it. (Getty Images)
  • Route to happiness
    Maps give us the shortest walking direction to a destination, so would it help if it gave us the happiest path – the path full of trees, for example? (Getty Images)
  • Smart cars
    If self-driving cars hit our roads, these could create optimised traffic flows that provide more space for other transportation or foot traffic. (Getty Images)
  • Rate my smile
    The urbangems.org site asks visitors to choose the more beautiful, quiet and happy scene to rate and rank scenes.
Does your neighbourhood make you happy or sad? Researchers are realising that how we feel about our local surroundings is vital to a city's success.

How do you measure how happy a city is? Just last week, a new app launched that boasted to be able to collect all sorts of information about a city – including how happy it is, based on how many of its residents are smiling in photographs. Already it’s found that St Louis, Missouri, is the happiest city on its database. Take that, Anaheim, California (50th out of 50).

As we know, the share of the world’s population living in cities has surpassed 50%. By 2025, we will see another 1.2 billion city residents. With more and more of us moving to urban centres, quality of life becomes ever-more important. But only recently have notions of human happiness encroached into the worlds of architecture and urban planning.

To allocate resources – like energy supply, water reserves, and clean air – more efficiently, cities around the world are already heavily investing into new monitoring technologies that will make them “smarter”. In doing so, they expect to reduce costs and create sustainable environments. In his book Smart Cities, Anthony Townsend suggested that future cities solely engineered for efficiency might not be good places to live in. Liveable cities are those that make their dwellers happy, concluded Happy City author Charles Montgomery.

The pursuit of happiness may be an unalienable right, but are the technologies we are designing really helping its users to be happy? Take the simple example of a web map. It usually gives us the shortest walking direction to destination. But what if it would give us the small street, full of trees, parallel to the shortest path, which would make us happier? As more and more of us share these city streets, what will keep us happy as they become more crowded?

Some of the answers may not lie in architecture schools, but in our local coffee shops. Christine Outram is a graduate of the MIT School of Architecture + Planning, and the founder of City Innovation Group, a global network of civic technologists. Last month, she wrote a provocative article titled “What Starbucks gets that architects don’t. Or why I left the architecture profession”. She wrote: “Dear architects, you’re outdated. I know this because I once was one of you. But now I’ve moved on. I moved on because despite your love of a great curve, and your experimentation with form, you don’t understand people. I correct myself. You don’t listen to people.” By contrast, Starbucks engage in intensive ethnographic work when deciding how to design their spaces. Interviewing hundreds of coffee drinkers, they determine what people consider to be a place of relaxation. As opposed to asking the question “what do we want them to do?” they are interested in asking “how do we want people to feel?” Form follows feeling.

It would be useful for architects to know what makes people happy, to know what people consider to be a beautiful city, and to integrate that knowledge into the urban planning process. In recent years, the new mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, has cancelled highways projects and poured the money instead into cycle lanes, parks and open spaces for locals – undoing decades of car-centric planning that had made the streets a no-go area for the capital’s children. On the day in February 2000 when Penalosa banned cars from the street for 24 hours, hospital admissions fell by a third, air pollution levels dropped and residents said it made them feel more optimistic about living in the city.

Mental maps

But other concepts of happiness – and even beauty – are often fuzzy. With colleagues at the University of Cambridge, I worked on a web game called urbangems.org. In it, you are shown 10 pairs of urban scenes of London, and for each pair you need to choose which one you consider to be more beautiful, quiet and happy. Based on user votes, one is able to rank all urban scenes by beauty, quiet and happiness. Those scenes have been studied at Yahoo Labs, image processing tools that extract colour histograms. The amount of greenery is associated with all three peaceful qualities: green is often found in scenes considered to be beautiful, quiet and happy. We then ran more sophisticated image analysis tools that extracted patches from our urban scenes and found that red-brick houses and public gardens also make people happy.

On the other hand, cars were the visual elements most strongly associated with sadness. In rich countries, car ownership is becoming unfashionable, and car-sharing and short-term hiring is becoming more popular. Self-driving cars such as those being prototyped by Google will be more common and will be likely to be ordered via the kind of mobile apps similar to the ones we use for ordering taxis nowadays. This will result into optimised traffic flows, fewer cars, and more space for alternative modes of transportation and for people on foot. Cities will experience transformations similar to those New York has experienced since 2007. During these few years, new pedestrian plazas and hundreds of miles of bike lanes were created in the five boroughs, creating spaces for public art installations and recreation. And it’s proved popular with local businesses too, boosting the local economy in areas where cyclists are freer to travel.

However, it is not clear whether the rise of post-war tower dwelling is a definite improvement on the modern city sprawl. Tall buildings (with the exception of glassed-office buildings and landmarks) are often found in sad scenes. Urban elements that hinder social interactions are undesirable. Therefore, by using elements that ease interactions (that foster what sociologists call “social capital”), architects are more likely to recreate the spaces we intuitively love.

The layout of the urban space plugs directly into our sense of community. Sociologist Kevin Lynch showed that everyone living in an urban environment creates their own personal “mental map” of the city based on features such as the routes they use and the areas they visit.

In 1972, the eminent sociologist Stanley Milgram showed that New Yorkers were able to recognise an area of the city partly because they were exposed to it. Digital records of London Underground trips further suggest that the more socially deprived an area, the fewer passengers visit it. The good news is that, by analysing the flow of Underground passengers, local authorities could potentially track social deprivation in real-time. Making cities walkable is the simplest and most cost-efficient way to increase exposure to its areas, says Walkable City author Jeff Speck. Here tech can help too. “Google Maps’ addition of walking, biking and transport options to its directions has been the greatest game-changer for increasing walking,” wrote Alissa Walker in a recent BBC Future article.

Yet such a map returns the shortest path to destination. Is that necessarily the one that will make you happiest? Yahoo Labs has geo-referenced pictures from urbangems.org, and are building new algorithms that find short routes that connect happy points together. These algorithms currently work only for London. To extend them to other cities, models are being built that predict crowdsourced user ratings from tags of Flickr pictures containing positive and negative emotion words. This means that, in any city in which Flickr is widely used, emotional ratings can be predicted without the need of any crowdsourcing site. The plan is to extend this work to Boston, New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Barcelona, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The goal is to change the ways these cities’ dwellers experience the built environment even as they walk through it.

Without being smart, future cities cannot be sustainable. But without retrofitting them for happiness, they are bound to become centres of decay. There is still time to prioritise people over cars, and offer dense urban living amidst a rich social landscape. We may think building happiness is a fuzzy notion, but the information we’re already gathering shows it might be much easier to create than we think.

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