Advocacy, education and outreach in support of Vancouver's public spaces

By Paola Qualizza

March 20, 2014 at 8:45 AM

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Make your own happy city

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Happiness at Robson Square. Photo from VPSN

What truly makes us happy? Local author Charles Montgomery (and one of our favorite public space co-conspirators) explores this question in his recent book Happy City – a perfect source for some reflection today, given that today is the United Nations International Day of Happiness.

A phrase in this book caught my attention: “happy loiterers”. Not normally two words you see together. What makes loiterers happy and appreciated people? Other people. Where does this occur? In great public space.

Ingrid and Jan Gehl, an environmental psychologist and architect, respectively, spent months discovering and studying the happy loiterers in medieval Italian towns. The places where they were found hadn’t been affected by cars or modern planning techniques and were “seething with life”, creating a sort of “human Serengeti” where life attracted more life.

Piazza del Campo stood out as a “…glorious gathering space that…functioned as a stage across which the entire city parades.” It “drew people together. It slowed them down. It held them in its palm.”

This is a story of public space teeming with a people characterized by their lust for life: Italians. But why let them have all the fun?

The story continues in Denmark, where the plazas of Italy inspired the Gehls to transform central city streets into pedestrian zones, injecting happiness into the cityscape. They found that people and their activities are the common denominator that bring others into public spaces, even if the activity is as simple as people watching other people watching people.

As much as we often complain about others in public space, the presence of people truly is what makes us happy in urban environments. So if you don’t have the will or time or expertise to change the physical infrastructure of the city to create more people-friendly spaces, you can make the change with yourself. Says Montogmery:

“We do not wait for someone else to make it. We build it when we choose how and where to live. We build it when we move a little bit closer. We build it when we choose to move a little slower. We build it by choosing to put aside our fear of the city and other people. We build the happy city by pursuing it in our own lives and, in so doing, pushing the city to change with us. We build it by living it.”

Make your own happy city: words of wisdom from the final passage of Montgomery’s book.

Where’s your favourite place to be a happy loiterer? In Vancouver? Elsewhere? Drop us a note and let us know! 

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