Acting Together

We can Co-create Happy Cities

It need not be that difficult. This is impossible to do everywhere, but by selecting one place where to do it collaboratively, at city and region scale, we can.

The sum of human efforts is accelerating and producing a great plenitude of choices that have never been ours before — this is not just change, this is a change in kind. The future is rushing at us and it can be a marvelous future — or a disaster.

The Future of Cities According to Century-Old Cartoons

The City that Makes us Happy

Architects and urban designers have long claimed the power to influence human well-being through form and aesthetics. None were so confident as the modernists, whose insistence on functional and aesthetic simplicity changed the course of architectural history. Now that our cities have been transformed by the modern aesthetic, we are discovering that architects are right in their belief in the power of design — but they are frequently wrong in their methods. ( Charles Montgomery author of “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design” and a keynote speaker at “880 Cities: The Doable City”)

Charles findings in Canada reinforce those of Danish architect, Jan Gehl, who found that when street edges feature uniform facades with hardly any doors, variety or functions, people move past as quickly as possible. But if a street features varied facades, lots of openings and a high density of functions per block, people walk more slowly. They pause more often. People are actually more likely to stop and make cellphone calls in front of lively facades than in front of dead ones. And the slower people move along any street, the more social it becomes.

Street sociability is no trivial matter. Social streets are safer. They are healthier. (Public health researchers have found that older adults actually age more quickly in neighborhoods that lack plentiful doors, windows, porch stoops and destinations, for the simple reason that they are less likely to walk when there are fewer places to reach on foot.) And social streets are great for the economy. Geographers have found that economic growth and creativity correlate directly with a city’s ability to foster face-to-face interactions.

Urban Crisis of Jobs and Health

This points to an emerging crisis for urban well-being. As suburban retailers begin to colonize central cities, and displace business to outlying malls, block after block of bric-a-brac and mom-and-pop-scale buildings and shops are being replaced by blank, cold walls that effectively bleach street edges of conviviality. Even big mixed-use buildings increasingly feature single-use ground floors. The best neighborhoods of some cities are essentially being big-boxed into simplicity, and wonderful city high streets are sucked dry of pedestrian circulation.

Luckily, cities have begun to recognize the value of more complex street edges. Melbourne adopted rules banning long, blank facades and forcing new shops and restaurants to have doors or display windows covering at least 80 percent of their frontage. Danish cities have gone further. In the 1980s most large cities in the country actually restricted banks from opening new branches on their main shopping streets. It is not that Danes hate banks; it is that passive bank facades bleed life from the sidewalk, and too many of them can kill a street. In some cities is casinos or large clubs that offer blank facades.

The key issue is that the creativity and livelihood of the city, is it lifeblood, and an incredibly valuable asset. It is a commons as it is the citizenry’s right to a healthy, life-giving public realm and that has to trump always anyone’s right to kill it.

New York began playing catch-up in 2012, adopting new zoning that limited the ground-floor width of new stores on major avenues on the Upper West Side. But much more needs to be done in central city areas. The loss of the edges of conviviality both real and metaphorical requires a great dose of regeneration. Cities are not simple. Neither is human well-being. The more we embrace the complexity of both, the healthier, wealthier and happier our cities will become.

The Importance of Co-creation

We humans have adapted to many such revolutions in the past. However, we have done so over much greater periods of time than we now have to appropriately respond to our present largely self-created situation. New technologies, part of the emerging complexity, will give us the ability to respond faster and better. But we must look to collaborative practices and creating trust between people as the main qualitative jump at our reach.

There is a general myth that it is difficult to accomplish plans. We believe that this is a mistaken perception. Implementation is what, as a society, we do best [Engineer Is Human : The Role of Failure in Successful Design]. People and organizations accomplish their plans with great consistency. It is usually only upon accomplishing them that they discover just what their plan really was.

But we leave many things to the ‘invisible hand’, a desire or even a goal is not a plan. And it is with this distinction that the myth becomes clear. So while many seem to be surprised by the unfolding future, most results follow quite logically our past actions. Wars and famines lead to migrations that nobody wanted, but it is difficult to imagine a society being more effective in bringing them about. Brexit, the independence of Catalunya and the polarization of politics in other parts of the world — including the US, speak volumes.

So we have really a need to pick up this task which neither the city administration nor citizens see as their own. We are no longer scattered tribes that can survive by simple means and rebuild from a disaster. We are a global system with immense systemic vulnerabilities. We are no longer living in a simple state of nature — we are co-evolving with ourselves as the main creator of the evolutionary game. Our concern is to enable the effective societal governance and response, generating the creative Reaction to avoid a collision with the future.

If we hide behind a faith in the “hidden hand” — a theory of market mechanisms we never actually bothered to implement, we are facing an avalanche and we are not prepared. But if as a society, we embraced the co-creation challenge these considerations bring a whole new meaning and context to the idea of THE DESIGN IMPERATIVE.

The Reactor process holds the argument that the scores of very good projects in the realms of ecology, economics, social innovation and global infrastructure can and WILL add up to the results we need!


THE BEGINNING EVENT IS NOVEMBER 27–29, 2017 Stay tuned!

This is part seven of the S2S Reactor’s eight-part series Toward Building the City of 2050 that we all want to Live in. This is now in full mode ahead. If you’d like to get all the parts published sent to your inbox, sign up for Beginnings.