There has been a recent study that says that walkable cities do not make people happier. According to that study, this is because in the most walkable North American big cities such as Boston and New York City, there is a huge wage gap relative to cost of living for many of those city’s residents.
You can see where this is going already. With so many people working multiple jobs and trying to feed children, doing so at wages that are not in keeping with their financial constraints, the issue of how many walking paths, green spaces, or bike lanes in a given neighbourhood isn’t likely to make much of a dent on the happiness front in relation to those harsher realities.
My response to that, of course, is just this: duh.
Walkable Cities and Happiness
Of course systemic economic imbalances and the violence they cause (yes; violence) trump foot-friendly infrastructure in the happier citizens stakes, and even trump the health benefits of walking, which are otherwise undeniable. To me this line of reasoning as it pertains to the benefits of creating walkable, human-scaled cities strikes me as disingenuous. Because where making this leap around economic pressures on people isn’t too mentally strenuous for anyone, it’s hardly the point behind walkable cities and happiness levels of citizens. Those realities of economic hardship touch on so many other points on how society and economies are structured so as to make for a completely different study.
In the middle of all of this, why are people still talking about walkable cities as a part of so many urban goal setting plans in places all over North America, particularly in a bid to satisfy the livability expectations of millennials? Could there be some primal drive behind the impulse to want to use our feet (or our bikes, or public transit) to explore our neighbourhoods instead of the car-centric model that has taken precedence from the post-war period of the twentieth century to up until today? Well, as it may not surprise you to learn, I think the answer is a definite and resounding yes. But what is that primal impulse, exactly?
The People in Your Neighbourhood
Remember that song from Sesame Street, GenXers? There’s a reason it was such a long-running addition to that long-running children’s program, set very firmly in an hyper-urban setting. Reaching kids in cities was the primary objective with that catchy little number, since migration to cities from rural areas had been a steady trend post-WWII into the 1970s, now only just a preview to the kind of urban migration we’ll see by the middle of our current century all over the world. The point of this important lesson of knowing who the people in our neighbourhoods are was to humanize members of the community, to introduce us kids to the idea how other people’s lives intersect with our own, encouraging the idea of community cohesion in us so we could implement it when we became adults.
We didn’t know it then when we were learning about the firefighter, the police officer, the grocer, the construction worker, the letter carrier, and on and on. But that was the lesson we were meant to take away. These people live where we live. They make contributions that make our lives better. We are in a relationship with them, however passive it may be. That relationship is what makes us a community. What does this have to do with walkable cities? Just this.
Knowing our Neighbours
Knowing our neighbourhoods and the people who live in them with us in greater detail is best accomplished at a human-scaled pace and with human-scaled perceptions of distance. This means being able to see people, to encounter them, to acknowledge their presence. It’s hard to grasp a conception of someone’s humanity when you are streaking past them in a car on a four lane road all the time. It also means attaching locations to memory to a more efficient degree, too, not just knowing which turn to take off of a busy road, but also gathering up and storing the rewarding details along the way between A and B that make a journey truly memorable.
These are important reasons why planning walkable cities is such a pervasive and much-discussed idea in a century that will see urban populations on a global scale swell to a significant degree by 2050, estimated to increase by 66% or more by that year. That’s a lot of people in your neighbourhood, friends! And consider this, too. Knowing our neighbourhoods on that human scale, and knowing our neighbours better as we see them out and about makes for safer cities, too. How much more likely are we to look out for each other when we are also known to each other?
Empathy and Walkability
When we walk, we are instantly at a more human pace where we are free to observe, to explore our worlds in greater detail, and to see others doing the same while we’re at it. There is a greater chance to make connections or at least make important associations with those we find on our journeys, even if no greetings between people are overtly exchanged. This isn’t even about being more friendly with each other, or chattier. It’s about a better chance at arriving at the simple acknowledgement that we are all mutually in the same world together at the same time. It’s a chance to consider that many of the journeys we take are similar, and that we are not on our own. This seems like a small thing. But I don’t think it is. When we acknowledge each other’s physical presence in the world, we have to at least contemplate the idea that we may have more in common with each other than not.
Seeing each other physically day to day in close proximity and becoming familiar with one another at a human pace is how we build community, and how we’ve historically increased our chances for survival as a species. That impulse is, in fact, the very reason we built cities in the first place. When we are actually able to see each other regularly on footpaths, sidewalks, public squares, pedestrian areas, bike lanes, parks, community destinations, main streets, even on public transit, we help to make our city more human-centric, and once again ultimately safer, too. I suppose that’s why I personally feel so at home here in a way that I haven’t in places I’ve lived where the simple act of walking somewhere isn’t easy, or (either subtly or overtly) discouraged.
Walkable New Westminster
There are many walkable areas in this city, which is the one of the main reasons I moved here. There was a pretty huge practical reason for this on my part. I didn’t own a car at the time, and I needed a place that was fitted for public transit and for mixed-use neighbourhoods with reasonably scaled city blocks where I could walk to a grocery store when I needed to do so without exhausting myself, being aggressively bored by the journey, or being overcome with carbon monoxide from various tailpipes. And being that this was at a juncture in my life where I was going through the end of a marriage, I didn’t want to feel any more alone than I already did. Those practicalities aside and as time marched on, I realized that the cohesion I talked about earlier on was the most notable characteristic here in New Westminster. Lots of people walk here because they can do it easily. Lots of people can be easily identified on the journey to and from on foot, and can therefore be identified with.
Having lived here for a while, I really do think that our community is strengthened by this. Luckily we continue to value locations in our city where we can gather on foot. The River Market and the Quay are not the only examples, although they are among the most prominent. Refurbishments of Columbia Street and frequent pedestrian-oriented events held there are also significant indicators of this. The same goes with events like Uptown Live at Sixth & Sixth, and the 12th Street Music Festival. Pier Park is another example of an investment in walkable areas where citizens can connect. And the upcoming Front Street Mews is certainly among the most recent and very exciting examples of the same. Let’s hope the Q2Q pedestrian and bicycle bridge project also sees light of day soon so we can more efficiently draw our fellow citizens who live in Queensborough to some of these defining locations in New West.
More Than a Question of Infrastructure
Being able to meet, or at least observe each other as we interact with our surroundings day to day on a human scale is mandatory to achieving more cohesive communities with happier citizens. This certainly touches on the prospect of creating happier cities. How much better do we feel when we can observe human activity at a human pace and after traversing a human measurement of distance? This is how we know that we are not alone, and how we settle in to a sense of home. And how important is that idea to human happiness? Talk about your primal impulses! So, this is more than just a question of infrastructure, which is of course an important means to those ends. It’s also about shifts in perception from an old paradigm to a new one in terms of how to move people around a region. It’s certainly about empathy, and a sense of personal freedom to move and explore as we prefer.
What’s the best way to ensure that everyone is happier in cities as populations flock to them as our century grows older? Well, it will certainly have something to do with creating a society where lives of quiet desperation as they exist in isolation are less common than they are now. Robust alliances between private, public, and academic sectors will be required for that. But it will also involve creating places to live where we can meet each other, and know each other in all of our diversity and commonality, all for mutual benefit. If humanity in the mid-twenty-first century can just slip on our shoes and go out the door to meet this new world, particularly without needing car keys, I can’t imagine that not being a happier place to live.