Lab | Log

TBC: Get Happy with “Emotional Cityness”

Many Lab programs, including the Mumbai Lab's Laughter Yoga, shown here, promoted a more joyful urban experience. Photo: Uncommon Sense © 2012 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Many Lab programs, including the Mumbai Lab's Laughter Yoga, shown here, promoted a more joyful urban experience. Photo: Uncommon Sense © 2012 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

It’s no secret here on Lab | Log that some of my all-time favorite memories from the Lab stemmed from a bizarre and powerful evening called Love Night, when scientists, artists, and New Yorkers banded together to convert the Lab into the ideal environment for convivial, trusting, and altruistic encounters. The goal? To experiment with and demonstrate how better design and behavior could actually transform the city into a turbine for empathy and love.

It seemed, admittedly, a little kooky at the time—a bit touchy-feely in a city with such harsh tangible problems. But these days that audacious notion that the emotional software of our city may, indeed, be just as important as the physical hardware—a concept dubbed “Emotional Cityness” in the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossary—hardly seems untoward. In fact, it’s rapidly becoming a full-blown movement.

The Lab gave this notion a lot of love during its time, and I admit that I’ll deeply miss emotion- and connection-driven events and experiments like Bubble Lab, Emotionstrainer, Green City, Grey City, Good City, The Power of Intuition, Testing, Testing, and more. But there are many other ways to continue following this movement around the world. Here are a few favorites:

First, there’s Hazel Borys of Placemakers—I recommend her fabulous series on urban happiness, and I am intrigued by her ambitious goal of creating an Urban Happiness Index. Also worth checking out: Benjamin Radcliff, political science professor at Notre Dame University and author of The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life.

This great piece by Jan Golembiewski, a researcher in environmental determinants of mental health at the University of Sydney, offers an excellent roundup of historical and current studies into the influence of architecture on mental health. This type of evidence-based design (EBD) is increasingly used in hospital and “health district” design, but there is a great need for an expansion of its use into the broader architecture profession. As Golembiewski puts it: “To give architecture back its mojo, a new interest in how architecture changes us must be fostered. Clients have to learn to trust architects again and research funding bodies have to re-gear to encourage research into how buildings affect our mood, health, and behaviors.”

Perhaps the most ambitious attempt thus far to inject happiness research into tangible, on-the-ground design can be found in the most unexpected of places: Fremont Street, the jugular of Las Vegas’s (real) downtown, and subject of Zappos tycoon Tony Hsieh’s $350-million Downtown Project. Hsieh’s dream is to build happiness and conviviality into the core through high-density, mixed-use, walkable design, and investment in small businesses, tech startups, arts and culture, coworking spaces and community programs. In short, as stated on the project website, the goal is “to build the most community-focused large city in the world . . . in the city where you would least expect it.”

And, of course, there’s Charles Montgomery. The former Lab Team member and author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design—launched at the Guggenheim this fall in conjunction with Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab—is always up on the latest in urban emotions, psychology, and happiness (big thanks to him for brainstorming this post with me). His Twitter feed is an absolute goldmine.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget Pharrell Williams. Because . . . we’re happy.

How are you following the Emotional Cityness movement? Share your favorite people, places, and projects in the comment section below!

  • Christina

    Thanks so much for posting this! I’m reading the fabulous ‘Happy City’ book right now and so I appreciate this list of further reading. I think you (and Charles Montgomery) are really onto something with the concept of the happy city. I’ve been thinking of similar concepts in terms of ‘child-friendly cities’, but happiness (for all!) is an even more powerful, convincing goal. Greetings from Berlin,


  • Christine_McLaren

    Thanks so much for writing, Christina. So glad you’re enjoying the book, and the list. Be sure to keep us posted on any other good readings you come across along the way, too! Also, you’re right on the mark with child-friendly cities, too, I think: according to the Penalosa’s, among many others, the Happy City and the child friendly city are one in the same! Keep bearing the torch, and keep in touch!