• 02.08.12

Forget The Suburbs: Living In Beautiful, Well-Designed Cities Makes People Happy

The cliche of the mean and unfriendly city dweller is totally bunk. People in cities are happier. Which is good, because it’s where we’ll all be living soon.

I love living in San Francisco. The city is packed with culture, beautiful parks, open spaces, and local businesses. These are just some of the qualities that inspire happiness among urban residents, according to a study from Urban Affairs Review. The culture-less suburbs nearby just don’t cut it.


The study surveyed residents of 10 major international cities–New York, London, Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, Milan, Berlin, Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo–about what makes them happy. Turns out, there’s a big link between the built urban environment and happiness. In general, respondents were happiest when their cities had easy access to public transportation, cultural activities, libraries, shops, and sports facilities.

Basic amenities are also key to happiness. Residents who responded that they have access to clean drinking water, a safe environment, and an aesthetically beautiful city also reported higher levels of happiness. But even though living in “a beautiful city” was the most important predictor of happiness among survey respondents, having clean streets, sidewalks, and public spaces weren’t rated as being important.

The researchers speculate: “Perhaps there is an understanding here, among urbanites, that cleanliness in the city is not something they can always control, or that it is allowable as long as the city is beautiful and safe in general (enough to rear and care for children, for example).” Beauty, it turns out, is relative for urbanites. A well-designed urban environment matters much more than the amount of trash on the sidewalk.

Based on their findings (and past studies), the researchers speculate that a feeling of connectedness–something that often comes with living in a safe, activity-packed city filled with quality neighborhoods–is also key to happiness. “Some [neighborhoods] are designed and built to foster or enable connections. Others are built to discourage them (e.g., a gated model) or devolve to become places that are antisocial because of crime or other negative behaviors,” say the researchers. “Increasingly, researchers and practitioners have become aware that some neighborhood designs appear better suited for social connectedness than others.”

Those gated suburban communities that lack easy access to any sort of cohesive neighborhood? People probably aren’t too happy there. And that’s not a bad thing–we should encourage people to move away from places where they have to drive everywhere. Thankfully, the style of densely-packed living that’s best for our planet is also where people are happiest.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.