Can Cities Make Us Happy?

Jan 16, 2014

By Daniele Quercia   Cities are attracting considerable research interest. In Computer Science circles, the agenda behind smart cities has gained traction: new monitoring technologies promise to allocate urban resources (e.g., electricity, clean water, car traffic) more efficiently and, as such, make our cities ‘smarter’. A rare counterpoint to that dominant efficiency-driven narrative is recent research on the  relationship between happiness and cities: which urban elements make people happy?

To help answer that question, I built a web game with collaborators at the University of Cambridge in which users are shown ten pairs of urban scenes of London and, for each pair, a user needs to choose which one they consider to be most beautiful, quiet, and happy. Based on user votes, we are able to rank all urban scenes according to these three attributes. We recently analyzed the scenes with ratings using image processing tools and presented the results in an upcomingCSCW paper titled “Aesthetic Capital: What Makes London Look Beautiful, Quiet, and Happy?” We discovered that the amount of greenery in any given scene is associated with all the three attributes and that cars and fortress-like buildings are associated with sadness (we equated sadness to our measurement for the low end of our ‘spectrum’ of happiness). In contrast, public gardens and Victorian and red brick houses are associated with happiness. It is well-known that the layout of urban spaces plugs directly into our sense of community well-being. The 20th century sociologist Kevin Lynch showed that everyone living in an urban environment creates their own personal “mental map” of the city based on features such as the routes they use and the areas they visit. Lynch thus hypothesized that the more recognizable the features of a city are, the more navigable the city is. To put his theory to test, more than a year ago, I teamed up with researchers from Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and launched another web game that crowdsources Londoners’ mental images of the city. In a WWW paper titled “Psychological Maps 2.0”, we showed that areas suffering from social problems such as housing deprivation, poor living conditions, and crime are rarely present in residents’ mental images. Our results all point in the same direction: urban elements that hinder social interactions are undesirable, while elements that increase interactions are the ones that should be integrated by urban planners to retrofit our cities for happiness. Now, as a computer scientist, you might wonder: can these findings be used to build better online tools? The answer is a definite ‘Yes’! Existing mapping technologies, for example, return shortest directions. To complement them, we are designing new tools that return directions that are not only short but also tend to make urban walkers happy. Are you intrigued by this idea? More to follow on this blog in the near future. Expanded versions of this post can be read in this BBC article and seen in this TEDx talk: