How Should We Measure the Happiness of Cities?

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Paris

We recently coveredthe list of the happiest countries in the world, (mostly cold and snowy and dark) but what are the happiest cities?

Arcadis study

© Arkadis design and consultancy

According to a study by Arcadis, a consultancy, the happiest city is Seoul, Korea; North America doesn’t appear on the list until 10 with Montreal; the US at 41 with Boston. But this is all based on education, income equality, work life balance, health and affordability, many of which are arguably worse in American cities, where the President says “Our inner cities are a disaster, you get shot walking to the store." Not good marketing. But which is the happiest city in America, and what are the criteria?

A study by Gallup just looks at the USA and is biased towards health care, but comes up with Naples, Florida in Number 1, followed by Salinas, California.

Top 20 cities

© Gallup/Healthways

I have only been to a few of these cities in the top 20, most of which are not huge. But I have been to most of the Florida ones and thought, Really? It's warm, but it's all parking lots and malls. Perhaps it is the criteria that they use, which are heavily weighted toward health care and financial security.

Richard Florida, writing in Citylab, describes yet another list that looks at 230 counties in America and finds that most cities are not very happy. From the abstract:

We find that the core characteristics of urban life (in particular size and density) contribute to urban unhappiness, controlling for urban problems. Urban unhappiness persists regardless of urban characteristics.

Florida writes:
The study finds that those living in counties outside metropolitan areas tend to report higher levels of happiness than those living in central cities... the three happiest counties (which scored above a 3.5 on the happiness scale) are mostly rural or a mix of suburban and rural, according to the study.

As one who does go on about the wonders of cities, this is all very shocking to me. But then they are not counting those things that I think are important in cities, from transit to trees to libraries. Perhaps we need a new list based on other criteria.

London south bank

Lloyd Alter/ London/CC BY 2.0

On URBAN HUB they write about searching for the secret of urban contentment.

Economic prosperity brings many good things to cities, such as new high-rise buildings, booming populations, more jobs, new shops and greater opportunities. But that’s not enough. Instead, a city with elevated levels of happiness is often one that has invested in the simple pleasures: in creating a sense of community and meaning, and in ensuring freedom to move about flexibly. A happy city, it appears, is a city that designs an infrastructure that supports elementary concepts of human connection.

It should be noted that URBAN HUB is a website sponsored by ThyssenKrupp, which makes elevators and moving sidewalks, so they are in the business of infrastructure that supports urban connections. But they have a point.

Beijing park

Lloyd Alter/ Beijing/CC BY 2.0

URBAN HUB quotes Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City, a wonderful book that I have read but have not gotten around to reviewing. He lists his criteria for happy cities:

I propose a basic recipe for urban happiness drawn from the insights of philosophers, psychologists, brain scientists, and happiness economists. What should a city accomplish after it meets our basic needs of food, shelter, and security?
  • The city should strive to maximize joy and minimize hardship.
  • It should lead us toward health rather than sickness.
  • It should offer us real freedom to live, move, and build our lives as we wish.
  • It should build resilience against economic or environmental shocks.
  • It should be fair in the way it apportions space, services, mobility, joys, hardships, and costs.
  • Most of all, it should enable us to build and strengthen the bonds between friends, families, and strangers that give life meaning, bonds that represent the city’s greatest achievement and opportunity.
  • The city that acknowledges and celebrates our common fate, that opens doors to empathy and cooperation, will help us tackle the great challenges of this century.
This is a different, better way of measuring happy cities.