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7 Things Your City Can Do to Boost Well-Being and Urban Happiness

We started Humankind to show the world how we can create urban happiness for all. Happiness, that state of mind you achieve most of the time by not actively looking for it. But it is very human to seek happiness because as much as feeling bad is part of life, it just feels much better than sadness. Striving for happiness, quality of life, or well-being is also part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG3 “Good Health & Well-Being”).

The amount of books on the topic is enormous, probably because it is a bit of a mystery. Happiness is something quite intangible; once you think you get it it can slip away. It is surprising though that we are not applying what we actually do know that boosts happiness in our cities. These are seven things that your city should do to boost well-being. The list is not complete, but it is a start.

Open public urban gyms that train the body and the mind

There are some great examples of urban gyms around the world. We like the ones we planned in Groningen, but the one near the sea in Barcelona is also a great example. Many cities understand they have a role to play in helping their citizens get fit, but forgot that the mind is also something we must train in order to really be healthy. The urgency is clear, as we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Urban gyms should give space to do exercises that strengthen our minds, while making sure the place is accessible for all.

Groningen urban gym & Body & Mind gym by Humankind

Design multigenerational communities of care

Creating communities of care is an important topic everywhere. Part of the solution is not new, but something humankind seems to have forgotten; creating spaces in which old and young can help and teach each other. This is something the Mehrgenerationenhäuser in Germany facilitate. It is a kindergarten, a social centre for the elderly and somewhere young families can drop in for coffee and advice. In The Netherlands students can get a room in a nursing home in return for supporting their elderly neighbours. These are not just solutions to the housing crisis, or an update of the broken health care system.

These examples show that old and young have much more in common than we often think and have much so much to teach each other as well. The idea is far from new, but especially in the western world, we need to start to make it the new normal. It requires changing certain policies, developers who care, and designers and architects to be creative, but is a great way to create well-being for young and old.

Think bigger, plant tinier forests

We know that planting trees is one of the great solutions to fight the climate crisis. But doing so in urban environments is quite complex. Often we hear that there is no space in the city, or it is simply too crowded below street level with sewage systems and cables. It is time we think bigger, and change our view on cities as a concrete jungle with some perfectly placed trees, to a truly urban forest with buildings. If we think this big, we can suddenly see space for tiny forests - the size of a tennis court - or even tinier forests replacing some car parking spaces. Trees - and not just green space - improve our health, create stronger communities and directly make us happier. We should learn from the Japanese, and take urban forest bathing seriously.

'For Forest' art installation by Klaus Littman & street art intervention by unknown

Surprise, surprise

Globalization brings the world to your city. In the past, we could drink a Starbucks during a trip to New York. Now we can get their Double Ristretto Venti Half-Soy Nonfat Decaf Organic Chocolate Brownie Iced Vanilla Double-Shot Gingerbread Frappuccino just around the corner. The same counts for the shops most of us buy our clothing. Convenient, but also so boring. Our cities start to look like the average airport.

You can probably buy a t-shirt saying ‘Let life surprise you again’ in one of these shops. Research shows that the element of surprise is very important on the road to happiness. It could be an unexpected piece of street art, a new local coffee shop, or a pocket park with local plants. It requires new ways of looking, and new ways of programming the city, but it will certainly lift our mood. You will be surprised.

Pop-up art work in Rotterdam by Spenser Little

Create public spaces with youngsters

We have all been young, and let’s be honest, it was a fun, but also a very confusing period in our lives. Cities are doing a quite bad job when it comes to giving youngsters their space. We often treat them like secondary citizens, especially those from lower-income groups or with an immigration background. It is essential we do better. Public space is very important in this period of growing up, a requirement for social interaction and the development of the social identity of youngsters. Their urban upbringing can traumatize or empower them. Designing spaces for teenage rebellion may sound like a contradiction, but if we change our approach and start with really involving youngsters in the design process, listening to their needs, tapping into our own experience as adolescents, we can make a big difference. And the process can be fun as well!

Unleash social capital by creating dog parks

Dogs are man’s best friend. Some dog owners even look like their faithful companions. Dogs are mental-health boosters, helping to reduce anxiety and being a furry friend for those who feel alone. Physical health is also getting better by the daily walks, starting the day with an activating stroll outdoors. Dog owners visit the doctor less than those who don’t share their life with a pet.

Cities should facilitate dogs much better, by creating top-notch dog parks. They increase general health, keep the public space free of doggy do, but also bring neighbours together, creating social capital and a sense of community. Unleash the dogs.

Make cycling a matter of the health, social and economic department

Is it really necessary to repeat that cycling is a proven way to boost happiness? OK, once more. Recent research shows that finds that when it comes to your daily commute, cycling is the happiest form of transportation. The researchers "examined how the mode, duration, purpose, and companionship characteristics of a trip shape six different emotions during the trip, including happy, meaningful, tired, stressful, sad, and pain." Riding a bike every day to work stimulates the production of certain chemicals like dopamine and cannabinoids, which contributes to reduced stress and a better mood. Still, many cities struggle with really prioritizing cycling. Our advice is to get the health, social, and the economic department involved. Once they see the impact bikenomics, it will also put a smile on their face.



Jorn Wemmenhove

Co-founder & creative strategist

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