Untangling what makes cities liveable: happiness in five cities

This paper builds upon recent research to examine how residents’ perceptions of their cities as places to live and the quality of services contributes to their levels of happiness.

Date added 16 December 2021
Last updated 16 December 2021

This paper begins by emphasising that life in the city is about far more than excellent engineering or high-quality architecture. The relationships people have with one another, their access to cultural, leisure and shopping amenities and public transportation, the attractiveness of the city, and the quality of government services they receive can make urban living pleasurable or dissatisfying.

Given the importance of cities for the wellbeing of people and the environment, the authors argue there is a real need to focus on improving the quality of life for people who live in cities. Part of what is needed is to promote innovative linkages between stakeholders, with the goal of promoting high-quality living in cities for residents throughout their lifespan and across differing socioeconomic backgrounds.

The paper first discusses the environmental, social and personal benefits that may come to citizens when they live in well-organised and managed cities. Higher density cities with mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods tend to be places with a significantly lower ‘carbon footprint’ per capita, partly because the urban form does not necessitate daily car usage.

Such places can also be healthier because residents typically walk far more and drive far less than their suburban or rural counterparts. Access to more social activities also tend to reduce social isolation; cities and their urban neighbourhoods can provide residents with the kind of social opportunities that can facilitate improved physical and mental health.  

The paper next comments on the standard measures of individual level happiness in cities before proposing that citizens’ perceptions of life in their city may add more understanding to levels of happiness. The authors highlight a model of individual happiness in 10 urban environments, using data from a 2008 Quality of Life Survey (QLS), which found that those who rated themselves high on a scale of happiness had higher incomes, were married, believed that jobs and volunteer opportunities were available in their city, felt connected to others, trusted their local government and had higher evaluations of their health.

The authors then go on to expand on that work by theorising how multiple measures which seek to examine citizen’s evaluations of their locales are functions of two dimensions they label ‘place’ and ‘performance’.

Aspects of ‘place’ include assessments of pride in one’s city; the perception that there are many parks and sports facilities in the city; the perception of easy access to cultural and leisure amenities, such as movie theatres, museums and concert halls; the convenience of public transportation; the degree to which residents feel their city is beautiful; and the perception that there is easy access to plenty of shops and stores.

The second factor, which the authors label ‘performance’, is a measure which assesses citizens’ general perceptions of how core services provided by governments or non-profit organisations function in the city. These include ease of getting children into good schools in the city; perceptions that the city is a good place to rear and care for children; the ease of getting good quality healthcare in the city; facilities the city provides to the disabled, the elderly and the disadvantaged; and the perceived safety of walking in the city at night.

In conducting their assessment, the authors found that citizen perceptions of performance and place variables appear directly related to individual evaluations of their own happiness. People who consider their cities to be good ‘places’ (e.g. beautiful cities that they are proud to live in, where they can attain easy access to plenty of shopping, cultural and sport amenities, parks, and convenient public transportation) also report feeling healthier, which is found to be a significant predictor of happiness.

The findings of this study indicate that, in cities, key aspects of the places that are built and the services that are provided are very important to the lives of residents. As such, the authors end their paper by stating that it is human decision-making, not random chance, that determines the success or failure of cities to provide opportunities for residents to have a successful and meaningful quality of life.