WEF – SUSTAINABLE CITIES: Happiness depends on urban design

How to plan cities that help make their citizens happy? The formula is very clear.


Improving public spaces is never a priority for mayors for the simple reason that this is something of little interest to the people. Security, the condition of the streets and mobility are of more immediate concern to citizens.

That’s the typical middle-class culture, which aspires one day to have a life free from stress and fear, and that for the moment, is snowed under with too many worries about money and family to be able even to think about recreation areas, green zones or culture. They leave others to worry about those things.

Unfortunately, that’s the formula for the urban hell into which hundreds of Latin American cities are turning.

Based on numerous investigations, and using personal testimonies and photographs, a recent book by the Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery called Happy City shows what urban design oriented toward happiness looks like. Basically, what’s needed is that public spaces be conceived to make life pleasant for pedestrians, and not toward the flow of vehicles. The result is more interaction among different types of people and less segregation of rich from poor, so that it’s possible to combine work, living, shopping and relaxation in an orderly way, instead of separating one activity from another.

Cities where people live with more gusto, like Copenhagen, New York, London, Paris or Vancouver, have fewer cars and more space in plazas, pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths. To replace the private car, these cities have invested in better public buses and urban trains and in various ways in which bicycles and cars are available for rent at small stations at all times. The personal automobile and the house in the suburbs are no longer status symbols, and rich and poor alike are returning to live in the city centers, which have the most sought-after properties and where the action is most intense.

These new urban designs help to reduce crime because public spaces can be better maintained and have more activity, and because the streets that had been jammed with autos now feature small shops and restaurants, chairs on the sidewalk and people walking or riding bicycles.

Is this a fantasy for Latin American cities? Not at all. It’s much cheaper to recover public spaces and improve public transportation than it is to build more streets and freeways that encourage ever-increasing use of the private automobile. A person in his private vehicle needs 20 times as much space on public roadways as one being transported by bus, 30 times more space than a bicyclist needs and 75 times more space than a pedestrian. Given that in Latin America those with cars are in the minority, it makes economic sense to reorient the urban development vision toward people and not cars.

Eduardo Lora is a consultant for the IDB. An economist, he graduated from the London School of Economics. He has been an associate fellow at Oxford, director of the Colombian think tank Fedesarrollo and chief economist of the IDB.


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