Social isolation challenge for happy city
In the world of city planning, attention is turning to the psychological impact of the built environment. Can a row of buildings make people as happy as they can make them glum? Can the design of a tower block and its lack of garden surrounds manipulate fearfulness and feelings of social isolation? The answer is yes.
For Auckland, New Zealand’s largest and most powerful city, no more pertinent is this conversation than now. September 1 saw the launch of Auckland Council’s latest manifestation of step change, the agency that is going to help fast track a raft of citywide developments, Development Auckland.
This Council Controlled Organisation (CCO) replaces Waterfront Auckland and marries with Auckland Council Property Limited (ACPL). Development Auckland (DA) is charged with transforming old pre-built, industrial or hazardous ‘brownfield’ sites into nice liveable places – a priority if we are to avoid the predicted shortage of 50,000 homes in ten years-time.
Case Basket met with Council’s enigmatic Design Champion, Ludo Campbell-Reid, to understand what makes a city happy and how Council gets developers to follow best practice guidelines – rules to encourage buildings that support well-being and generate implicit happiness.
The Oxford graduate and previously renowned London planner came to Auckland in time to influence the birth of the Super City and the kind of vibrant style revival we’ve seen down at Auckland’s waterfront. He has broken the narrative of the city’s last ten years into chapters.
“Chapter 1 is when I arrived in 2006. Auckland was a desperately unhappy city. Chapter 2 was setting up new governance because Auckland was tearing itself apart with eight cities and eight mayors. It was a city of silos and it had never been planned strategically. Now we’re entering Chapter 3 – fixing a problem that led to Auckland under-performing in lots of metrics that other global cities are doing well in.”
Campbell-Reid has always been a strong proponent of psychology and the ‘happy city’ concept but it took a while to embed the philosophy in fellow council members.
In support of his ongoing quest he recently brought urban writer Charles Montgomery over from the United States to speak at the Auckland Conversations series this year. Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design asks, ‘are cities better or worse for our happiness? Are subways, sidewalks and tower dwelling an improvement on the car-dependence of sprawl?’
Montgomery reaches into the heart of the relationship between city design and mood, seeking to understand the effect that design has on the way we feel, how we think and what decisions we make. He speaks Campbell-Reid’s language.
“Everything about what my team does is about psychology” he affirms. “Ideally people wouldn’t even practice in a built environment role without a degree in psychology.”
When Case Basket asked founder of news channel and website All About Auckland’s Kane Glass about the potential for unhappiness and social isolation in Auckland, he was sipping an espresso from the urbane sophistication of Britomart’s Espresso Workshop.
But from our table we looked out on to the less celubrious concrete surrounds of the apartment monolith that is Scene One. Could a building such as this 2004 example influence happiness and connectedness in its residents?
“Quite possibly. These were budget builds. If you approach this building you’ll see there are no permeable surfaces. Nothing could grow outside the entrance, there are no seats outside the lobby. There is no possible place to connect with other residents. The trend now, taken from Europe, is to have shops below the residential block. It provides a place for people to connect and hopefully support those businesses”
Patrick Reynolds – author, editor, renowned urban photographer and lecturer at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture and Planning – is careful to note that cities, its buildings and unhappiness are correlated, but they do not necessarily prove causation.
“Most people need other people to be happy. Cities are simply the reduction of physical space between individuals, they exist across almost all cultures and history. They should make us happier. But of course they can cause isolation, loneliness, and extreme misery. So the quality of the urban realm is vital; its inclusiveness, the balance offered between being connected and being able to withdraw…. This is much less about physical conditions than social and economic ones….”
Not everyone’s work supports this thinking though. A study called ‘Experience and expression of social isolation by inner-city high-rise residents’ was carried out by Love Chile, Carol Neill and Xavier Black from the Faculty of Culture and Society, School of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology.
The body of work looked at Auckland’s lack of balance between withdrawing and being connected. The team examined the factors that create the kinds of social isolation afflicting high rise urban apartment dwellers. They initially theorised that both the building and its surrounds became mixed with certain perceptions of safety and postulated that this affected residents’ ability to feel like part of a community.
Using descriptive research such as case studies, group interviews and questionnaires the study concluded that ‘the experience and expression of social isolation [was] consistent across all age groups’. But the highest correlation between hi-rise city living and functional social isolation (that is, isolation as a function of the environment) showed up among students and older adults.
Forty two percent of respondents expressed feeling social isolation, with 10.6 % saying they felt isolated frequently: ‘The expression of social isolation was characterised by low levels of social interaction with other members of the apartment building and neighbourhood community, low levels of engagement with community and civic agencies, and feelings of loneliness and withdrawal from social activities because of perceived risks to personal and community safety.’
The authors hoped that health and social care services could use the work as a base to ‘help reduce functional social isolation amongst young adults and older adults in inner-city high-rise apartments.’
This begs the question: how is Development Auckland is going to build emotional and cognitive dimensions that attest to safety and comfort into the transformation of Auckland’s brownfield site developments?
Campbell-Reid says there are indeed a number of strategies at council’s disposal when looking at developing the city. Firstly, he personally signs off on any urban projects over $2 million. But he can’t do all the work. It is shared with the Auckland Urban Design Panel, forty four independent built environment experts who provide peer design reviews of ‘significant projects, for both private and public developments across the region.’ There are several other checks and safeguards too – guidelines that even government bodies such as Housing New Zealand need to subscribe to.
“We’ve got to remember” says Campbell-Reid “that cities were actually designed to maximise commerce and interaction in a way that minimised travel. This was the drive behind cities back in the days when a horse and cart was the mode of transport. However, as cities grow, they lose cohesion.”
The creation of the combustion engine led to use of cars. People “could flee easily from the cities to new suburbs” as cars became widespread. This was the beginning of a loss of connectedness which people now call the unhappiness of a city.
But even in unhappy cities people stay on: The Unhappy Cities report that has proved popular this year, released by America’s National Bureau of Economic Research and co-authored by Professor Joshua Gottlieb of Columbia University, interprets survey responses on life satisfaction as a measure of happiness, and supports that people will swap happiness for money.
“Our research indicates that people care about more than happiness alone, so other factors may encourage them to stay in a city despite their unhappiness,” says Gottlieb. “This means that researchers and policy-makers should not consider an increase in reported happiness as an overriding objective” said Gottlieb in a university article.
“Making a happy city is actually not rocket science though” says Campbell-Reid surprisingly. “It is choreographic. Think about what people like, what makes good places. People like to be part of a neighbourhood, a community. I love the ideology that it takes a village to bring up a child. So the most important thing is how socially connected people are. So then we overlay climate change to that methodology to create sustainability. This then relates to walkability, ways for people to physically interact with each other and be healthy.”
Around the world, scholarly papers abound on the psychological, physical and social connectedness of green spaces. Particularly pertinent to New Zealanders is a study penned by D. Nutsford, A.L. Pearson and S. Kingham from the universities of Cantebury and Otago, published in 2013: ‘An ecological study investigating the association between access to urban green space and mental health.’
Their work concluded that ‘decreased distance to useable green space and increased proportion of green space within the larger neighbourhood were associated with decreased anxiety or mood disorder treatment counts in an urban environment. This suggests the benefits of green space on mental health may relate both to active participation in useable green spaces near to the home and observable green space in the neighbourhood environment.’
Community writer Corazon Miller said in one of the New Zealand Herald’s recent chapters on Auckland that citizens have 326 square metres of green space per person, a figure offered by Mark Bowater, Council’s park, sports and recreation general manager. He also said that 88% of Aucklanders live within a 10 minute walk of a local neighbourhood park.
But Reynolds says we should be careful about the use of terms like ‘green space’.
“There is absolutely no doubt that proximity to nature is a vital provider of uplift to humans, but these effects can happen in extremely urban environments. It seems likely that the addition of 50 trees (say) on 50 streets may be more effective for more people than one new park with 50 trees. This is not to undervalue parks but rather show that we can make big improvements without making big spatial changes.
“There is an old adage in urbanism: ‘What-ever the question, the answer is almost always a street tree.’ But this is not because the less urban a place the better, but rather that urban places are better with nature in their urbanity; not just adjacent to it. Green your city.”
This supports Jane Jacobs’ 1961 writings about the decades old mistake that planners make with allocation of green space to supposedly uplift people’s spirits. She describes this with candour in her book, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities.’
‘In New York’s East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. A social worker…was astonished…at how much the tenants despised it and urged it to be done away with. ..Finally one [very articulate] tenant made this pronouncement: “Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place…We don’t have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper…..Nobody cared what we needed. But the big men come and look at that grass and say ‘Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!” ’
Social isolation is one of the most unforgiving city-centred barriers to happiness. To counteract it, Taiwanese-American artist and one-time urban designer Candy Chang (who has worked in Nairobi, New York, Helsinki, New Orleans, Vancouver, and Johannesburg) creates projects that examine the relationship between ‘public space and mental health…and a city that exposes and fosters the complexity of the psyche.’
One of Chang’s most effective international creations is a simple cardboard ‘Please Disturb’ door knob hanger produced with the U.S Good Magazine. It includes space for residents to write down that they need to, say, borrow a ladder or that they can lend someone a sewing machine. Appropriate timing for one neighbour to ‘disturb’ another is also stipulated.
While this is the kind of explicit neighbourly practice that was once common place, Chang says that nowadays, knocking on someone’s door unexpectedly to borrow a cup of sugar is almost violating. Finding connectedness in a city therefore requires such tools that have an implicit purpose: happiness.
To enjoy a happier time and place with your city neighbours, print your door hanger out here.