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Forum Links Health and Urban Design

The Oregon Environmental Council is hosting a forum: Healthier by Design: Urban Lifestyles and the Built Environment on January 26th. This is part of their Healthy Environment series.

The Oregon Environmental Council is hosting a forum: Healthier by Design: Urban Lifestyles and the Built Environment on January 26th. This is part of their Healthy Environment series.

The amount of time we spend in traffic, background noise, water, air and food quality, access to open spaces or sidewalks— all of these factors affect our health. Lawrence Frank, Ph.D., is the J. Armand Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Transportation at the University of British Columbia and author of Health and Community Design: The Impacts of the Built Environment on Physical Activity, and most recently, co-author of Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, Building for Healthy Communities. His articles on health, community design and transportation have appeared in Time magazine, CNN, ABC News and other media outlets. Dr. Frank has also had a long-standing regional presence, working with King County and the Puget Sound Clear Air Agency to conduct research and initiate public health programs. He will focus on urban sprawl and public health, with information about his current research.

If You’re Happy and You Know It…

“What does happiness have to do with transportation?” you may ask. I will tell you but first bear with me for a description of a new paradigm for public policy outlined by London School of Economics professor in his new book entitled “Happiness.”

It may be hard to believe that there was a time when cost effectiveness and efficiency were not the underpinning and often smothering values in public policy debates. The radicals of the American and French Revolutions as well as town fathers and mothers throughout the world wouldn’t recognize these economic terms. They spoke in high flown language about “pursuit of happiness” and “self evident truths” or in more homely words of common good and taking care of each other. What these policy paradigms rested on was a shared value system–that community or public actions and investments derived from and were used to respond to conditions and trends affecting the well-being of citizens.

Their answer to the question of whether people would benefit, or be better off, as the result of communal action was based on whether people would consider themselves happier or more satisfied because of the public action.

Under the influence of the dismal science, economics, asking whether people would be happier as a result of a policy change, tax levy or project has disappeared from conversation. Even considered weird and immeasurable.

While cost benefit analysis offers reassuringly precise numbers, does measuring results solely in financial terms really lead to better policy making? If the aggregate income level of a country or city rises, are all its people necessarily better off? If the purpose of government is to meet the needs and desires of its citizens, shouldn’t we be asking them what makes them happy?

International studies on this subject show surprisingly high similarities among people worldwide as to what they care about and what makes them happy. Ranked from high to low, time with friends and family comes first, followed by economic security, meaningful work and health. Countries with extensive social welfare support and shorter workweeks have the happiest citizens (Scandinavia, Switzerland, etc) while countries with less social welfare and longer work weeks have less happy citizens, even if their incomes are much higher (US and UK). Layard lays out the development of new, statistically valid means of measuring the public’s levels of satisfaction that are surprisingly fine-grained and could be used to as guides for decision-making.

(This is a short summary of the thesis of the book. I recommend all policy wonks to read it for yourself.)

The implications for transportation planning (“finally,” you say) derive from the findings that what makes people happiest is time with friends and family and what makes them least happy is commuting (US study). In fact, what makes us happiest is sex, the most direct contact with another person, followed by being with friends and then by time with the family. Yet the survey respondents spent only 0.2 hours a day having sex while they spent 1.6 hours average doing what they disliked the most, commuting.

If we really want to meet the most basic of human values, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to increase satisfaction with our lives, then we should be designing our cities and making transportation investments in order to:

  • reduce the need to commute to work,
  • make those commutes as sociable as possible (mass transit and walkable streets increase our chance to interact with people: SOV’s are inherently isolating), and
  • give people more time in their day to do the things that make them happiest, which is spending time with family and friends.

We already know that these strategies help reduce travel and put more money in our pockets thereby addressing another major factor in happiness (economic security), “Happiness” argues that we should bring the discussion back to values and what furthers the public good as experienced by people in their lives and not rely on precise but not so meaningful economic indicators as measures of successful public policy.

(Northwest Environment Watch follows this issue as part of their obsession with measuring what counts. Intriguing posts on this blog.)

What Transportation Network Would Jesus Design?

I swiped this one from 1000 Friends’ e-mail newsletter.

Religious leaders are getting behind New Urbanism on the grounds that “the philosophy behind New Urbanism is a possible antidote to the isolation experienced by many churches and Christians.”

Sprawl makes it more difficult for churches to achieve their objectives, Bess said. For example, anyone who can’t operate a vehicle — the young, old or disabled — are disenfranchised, he said.

“Just as a matter of social justice it’s arguably better to make mixed-use, walkable environments,” Bess said.

Write Happiness into the Transportation Plan

Yeah, Portland is a national leader in transportation and land use planning. Early visionaries set the pace: Governor Tom McCall, Neil Goldschmidt, Ernie Bonner, followed by recent stars: Charlie Hales, Elsa Coleman, Mia Birk, and my favorite Rex Burkholder just to name a few. (Extra)ordinary citizens also shaped the vision of a lively, 24-hour downtown and neighborhoods with destinations worth the trip and the trip worth taking by foot and bike: blank walls right next to a sidewalk are outlawed, public art is plentiful, wide sidewalks and town squares allow us to linger and interact, bike lanes mark the way to sustainable transportation and physical well-being. We understand we must make the route pleasant and convenient or few will choose active transportation over driving. And recently, we have made the connection between public health and transportation, but at the Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness in Nova Scotia, Canadian Catherine O’Brien Ph.D. is asking us to make the connection between happiness and transportation.

Let’s incorporate the H word into transportation planning in Portland. Remember when livability rhetoric included transit and pedestrians, but it was hard for leaders to say the B word? Now bicycling is mainstream. Catherine O’Brien says we need to include happiness in the planning process. Plan for children “talking to friends, kicking pebbles, negotiating snow banks, jumping in piles of leaves or puddles.” The Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition in partnership with the City of Portland and other communities around Oregon are increasing the opportunities for children to walk and bike to school and kick a few pebbles along the way. Instead of children’s safety perhaps we should make children’s happiness a planning goal.

Consider spiritual wellbeing and transportation. If you ride a bike on a tree-lined avenue or interrupt your walk to admire a neighbor’s blooming passion flower with your child in hand, you know what O’Brien means by spiritual well-being in relation to transportation. O’Brien’s paper quotes Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota.

We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. …We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. … All our everyday efforts have one objective: HAPPINESS (conversation with Peñalosa in Ives, 2002).

In Portland, we’ve reached planning goals other cities covet, but how much more can we achieve if we consider happiness first in transportation planning? Can we actually write the H word into the Transportation System Plan?