Vancouver's Pursuit of Happiness

Might a mix of graceful urban design, block bashes and merry foolishness finally bond condo city?

By Maryse Zeidler 16 Jul 2013 |

Maryse Zeidler is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

This year, Vancouver was once again crowned one of the most livable cities in the world.

Yet, according to a report by the Vancouver Foundation, instead of smiling blissfully as the sun sets over the mountains, residents of this world-class city feel lonely and isolated.

The City of Vancouver is trying to find a solution to this paradox. Through initiatives like the Engaged City Taskforce, it's seeking to help citizens build stronger relationships with each other and with the city.

But some experts say the city's zeal for high-rise towers is at odds with this goal. Which raises a question: Is it possible to create community in a city of condos?

City of happy fools

Happy cities were the topic of a recent panel discussion hosted by the Indian Summer Festival, which featured experts in the spiritual, economic and design realms of happiness.

The consensus? After our basic needs like food and shelter have been met, true quality of life is to be found in our sense of belonging and interconnectedness. And the happiest cities are the ones that facilitate those relationships.

There are many pieces to the social aspects of happiness. For example, studies have shown that societies that are more egalitarian tend to be happier. As are those that have a strong culture of altruism.

But in terms of urban design, one of the key ideas the panel agreed on is for cities to offer shared public spaces like piazzas and parks. These, the panel conferred, act as opportunities to spark chance encounters. One of the panelists, Victor Chan, specifically emphasized the need for non-commercial spaces in order to eliminate economic barriers.

Conversely, urban design that prioritizes transportation by car instead of walking or cycling impedes those encounters. The cities the panelists said were the happiest -- Copenhagen, Bogotá, and Rangoon made the list -- were all those that emphasized walking and cycling over driving.

But once those spaces have been created, ultimately it's up to us to step forward. "In order to make cities happier places," said economist and author of UN World Happiness Report John Helliwell, "we've got to learn to make fools of ourselves."

During the discussion, Helliwell told the audience that city dwellers need to go outside their comfort zone and initiate conversations with strangers. Instances like elevator rides can be seen as an opportunity rather than a prison sentence.

Happiness by design

Award-winning journalist Charles Montgomery was one of the event's three panelists. He disagrees with Helliwell's thoughts on elevators encounters.

While conducting research for his book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design (to be published this fall), Montgomery came across a study that found that university students living in housing made up of pods -- apartment-style units with three or four bedrooms -- faired better than those living in dormitory-style housing with 20 to 30 people to a floor.

The students in pods had better relationships with their roommates, made more friends, and felt like they were in charge of their lives. "They were more able to control their interactions with the people around them," he said.

In cities, shared public spaces like parks and courtyards put us control of our social interactions, whereas spaces like cramped elevators don't. Condo towers, with their lack of informal gathering spaces and abundance of awkward, forced interaction, don't enable social cohesion between neighbours.

Vancouverism, a strategy developed in the '80s by former director of city planning Larry Beasley, supported the development of tall, slim towers separated by low-rise, commercial developments. Even today, city planners are working towards a goal of greater density by zoning new condo towers across the city.

Although Montgomery credits the Vancouverism model as unique and appropriate for downtown, he thinks city planners have become over-reliant on high-rise condos as the sole method for densification. "It's stopped us from looking at other forms and designs."

Sitting in a park near Vancouver's historic Chinatown neighbourhood, Montgomery watches the intersection of people nearby. To his right, a woman dances and sings to the sound of her own music. To his left, another woman plays fetch with her dog. Other people sleep or relax in the shade of the trees.

"There are strong connections between built forms and social relationships," says Montgomery. For example, in the Vancouver Foundation report, respondents who lived in condo towers were more likely to say they felt lonely.

These days, Montgomery is working on the idea of facilitating shared experiences to create bonds between strangers. Working with the Museum of Vancouver, he's organized Upcycled Urbanism, an event that gives participants the opportunity to re-imagine their city using free-standing blocks.

The event is part of the city's Viva Vancouver programming on Granville Street. It's modelled after Portland's City Repair Project, which brings together community members to get creative and re-imagine the places where they live.

Most of all, the event is an opportunity for people to connect through a combination of shared space, play, and collaborative effort.

Hey, neighbour!

The City of Vancouver is also looking at events as a way to build community connections. Last fall, it established the Engaged City Taskforce in response to the Vancouver Foundation report on loneliness and isolation.

One of the recommendations from the task force's first report, Quick Starts, is to create a city-wide block party day. The goal of the community parties is to empower neighbours to interact with one another.

Cinnamon Bhayani recently organized a block party in her East Vancouver neighbourhood, which is comprised of a mix of houses and low-rise apartments. She and some of her neighbours had been discussing the party for years. She applied for a small grant from the Vancouver Foundation, but was surprised to find low buy-in from her community once she got the funding.

"They were just so afraid," says Bhayani. Community members were concerned about attracting strangers into their neighbourhood. What if they just came to eat the meals the community prepared? "We have tons of food," she told her neighbours, "just let them eat it!"

But Bhayani thinks people were mostly anxious about interacting with each other. "They just wanted to sit back and watch, not participate."

She started planning the event three months in advance, but had no idea if anyone would come. Then, three days before the party, neighbours started contacting her to see if she needed any help.

In the end, about 70 people showed up, enticed by food, a DJ, and fun activities that made it easy for people to mingle. A local fire hall came with one of their fire trucks, to the delight of children and women alike.

"Once they were in, everyone was talking," says Bhayani. The effects of the block party were immediate. The very next day, people were shouting out "Hey, neighbour!"

It's about democracy

There's a broader reason why the city is helping people connect with each other.

The Engaged City Task Force and the Vancouver Foundation acknowledge that happy people make happy, well-functioning cities. Citizens have to empathize with each other and care about the city they live before issues like poverty and homelessness can be resolved.

Ultimately, the city wants to rekindle its residents' passion for civic engagement like voting in municipal elections and participating in community consultations. Vancouver's last elections had a paltry 35 per cent voter turnout.

For Peter Greenwell, chair of the Vancouver Planning Commission and member of the Engaged City Taskforce, the declining trend in civic engagement "threatens the fabric of our city and undermines our work to build a more affordable, greener, and stronger Vancouver."

Greenwell thinks that current consultation processes like the Grandview-Woodlands community plan are "rife with conflict." He believes that the more people understand what the city is trying to do, the more successful the processes can be.

He agrees that public space can be designed to encourage social interaction and build community connections. But, he adds, "We need more than design guidelines -- we need social planning."  [Tyee]

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