This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

How finding happiness is about more than soft furnishing

12 August 2015

Katherine Pollard

Harrogate was recently crowned happiest place in Britain for the third year running, according to estate agent Rightmove's ‘Happy at Home’ survey. Residents in Harrogate are apparently the happiest with their property and communities. According to Rightmove, Harrogaters’ sunny disposition is based on the survey’s criteria which include safety, costs, neighbourliness, décor ("I like the way my home is decorated/furnished"), pride and contentment, among other factors.

To regard happiness as measure of progress (for example, the UN's World Happiness Report) suggests that we should also make it central to place-making. Absolutely. While ‘happiness’ is necessarily subjective, it should be a long-term aspiration for politicians, investors, developers and communities, particularly because it prompts us to think about the quality and nature of the places in which we live. For example, Charles Montgomery believes that happy cities need first and foremost to be highly liveable (see his Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design).

Looked at in this way, we would focus more on health, freedom, joy, resilience, equity and social connections as the ingredients of liveable places. The danger then of focusing too much on the material rewards from places (important though these are) - the cars, the property, and yes, the décor - is that happiness is seen to be determined only by whether we are in the “haves” or the “have-nots”, rather than the broader quality of our experiences of places and people. By designing cities, towns and villages that promote human interaction and diverse experiences, we might do much to promote the happiness we seek.

It's also all very well describing the current status of places, but what about the future? League tables and rankings might be interesting and fun, but they don't really suggest how we can improve places.

Indeed, while we celebrate and tweet about the winners, places low on the list are labelled “the worst”. Barking and Dagenham, for example, was rated the "unhappiest" out of 130 places in Rightmove's survey. But the low ranking for Barking and Dagenham, Paisley, Luton and Aberdeen may not reflect how locals really feel about these places, good and bad, and what they'd like to see happen to their communities.

By designing cities, towns and villages that promote human interaction and diverse experiences, we might do much to promote the happiness we seek.

In our own work, for example our Planning Horizons papers from last year, we talked about the ingredients of 'successful places' as being attractive, liveable, accessible, connected, vibrant communities that are able to attract the people and investment that are crucial for their future economic and social sustainability. And of course, we made the point that planners are in a unique position to identify and enhance the critical qualities of places that can be built on, keeping in mind current and future generations.

This year the RTPI is also celebrating good practices and great place-making. We've invited the public to nominate their favourite places and explain what they like about them in our England’s Great Places initiative. This follows the success of Scotland’s Best Places project last year. How these valued places were created, enhanced and protected by planners has, we would argue, played an important role in why we love them today. These places may have a beautiful, protected landscape that people value, a regeneration project that has transformed an area into a vibrant community, or a historic well-preserved part of town of which locals are rightly proud.

We've already received a wide range of nominations, from Liverpool's waterfront to Brixton's Windrush Square. The beauty of the initiative is perhaps that there is no prescription for “greatness”, or “happiness” for that matter, but the common factor we hope to promote is that of good place-making wherever it happens.

So do join us in celebrating great places. Nominations for England’s Great Places are open until 1st September, and the public will be voting for their greatest place from 25th September. You can read more here.

Katherine Pollard is Policy and Networks Adviser at the RTPI.