Monday, February 10, 2014

Do cities create their own unhappiness?




This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was "The Urbanization of Happiness." You can hear the whole episode online here.

I have to admit that when I think of cities, I almost always think of major tourist destinations: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, Rome, Vienna. I rarely think of the megalopolises around the world that are struggling with infrastructure and overpopulation like: Sao Paolo, Kinshasa, Lagos, Mexico City, and the smaller cities struggling to hold their own like Tijuana, Ulaanbaatar, and Semarang. 

I’m also fairly blind to the parts of the cities I don’t see—the transitional neighborhoods and slums, the industrial zones with homes sandwiched between highways. This is odd, because I grew up in a pretty bad neighborhood with a pretty scary crime rate, but even with that history, I don’t know what it’s like to live in the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, or to build an apartment out of spare parts and attach it, precariously, on top of someone else’s home. I’m one of the lucky ones. I can decide to make poverty invisible to me. I can turn my back.

 It doesn’t help matters that politicians turn their backs, too. They build where the money is and where the votes are, not where work is actually needed. We see this even here in Grand Forks, ND where the city keeps putting new amenities in the South-end suburbs, far away from downtown, and burdensome to those who need public transportation. If Grand Forks can’t attend to its poorest; if it walks away from so many of its neighborhoods, what hope is there for Port-au-Prince or Detroit?

But what if it’s not that simple? What if it’s not just that cities don’t build where the poor people are, but rather, that by building where they do, the cities make the people poor? What if urban design doesn’t just contain violence, but creates it, encourages it, facilitates it? That’s the approach taken by our two guests today. They look at urban planning through the lenses of art, philosophy, and political science to see what cities can do to promote prosperity and happiness.


Questioning the city is as old as philosophy itself. The Greeks saw the city’s job as promoting virtue and happiness, and the Romans struggled with citizenship in the face of urban sprawl and congestion. St. Augustine thought that a city could be described by identifying only those with shared beliefs as common citizens, and many, so many, have used politics to justify containing those they wanted to punish or forget. The word ghetto comes from the Italian word “getto” meaning foundry; the foundry area is where the Jews of Venice were corralled and isolated in the 16th century.

Today’s show will ask us to shift our thinking. When we imagine designing a city, we can’t just think about economic expansion, we have to consider how to mix the city-scape with education, with beauty, with places to live, play, and talk, and with spaces to perform as citizens, as neighbors, and as inquirers. Cities are not just places that house lives, but places that define their limits. Why are so many American city kids basketball players? Because it’s easy to hang-up a basketball net. Why are so many city kids around the world soccer players? Because all you need to play it is a street and a ball. No helmets, no pads, no skis, no gloves. One ball and a neglected space create an obsession for a dozen people. 

There’s a joke in the first Crocodile Dundee movie. When Mick Dundee finds out how big New York City is, he responds, “That's incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth.” We laugh at him because of New York’s reputation for rudeness (a reputation I deny, by the way), but also because he naively thinks that seven million people want to live together, that they choose to do so. Most live in cities because they have to. For example, Mongolia has seen a mass migration from its rural areas to its capital city, Ulaanbaatar, because their economy changed. In twenty years, the population doubled, with 600,000 nomads now living in tents heated by coal-fired stoves. Their history and nomadic practices have been abandoned.

So, let us ask today, what would have to happen to make Ulaanbaatar, or any poverty-stricken city, a place that makes people happy? What structures would convert a slum to a thriving community? And what can a city do to stop thinking of its poor as recipients of services, but as architects of their own communities with voices as valuable as the wealthy? This is precisely what our guests are trying to do, through gardens, parks, art, and of course through philosophy. I think, today, everything we think we know about cities is about to become obsolete.

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