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.

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  • dtribone

    Why must we urbanophiles and planners insist on creating a cultural divide between the city and suburbs? It's just furthering the stereotypes of both and entrenching unnecessary animosity. Berating suburbs is unfair to the many people who simply want a little more space to raise kids or whatever, that's they're choice and it's perfectly acceptable. Also, neither cities nor suburbs are homogenous: city doesn't have to mean apartment building and suburb doesn't have to mean single family tract home. It's good that we have diversity so that people can choose the type of environment they want to live in. Suburbs aren't all auto-oriented mega-developments of Phoenix, they can also be towns with nice town centers and small blocks of houses. 
    The problem with this study is that it doesn't compare the happiness of urban and suburban residents, just looks at what makes city dwellers happy, so there's a strong possibility of a selection bias whereby urbanism makes these people happy and that's precisely why they've chosen to live in a city. To do this right, you'd have to look at residents of all types of urban form and see if urban places still make suburban residents happy.

  • Michael Roden

    The attitude taken toward living a more connected lifestyle comes down largely to one's social politics, and luckily my generation (people under thirty) seems to be irreversibly open-minded compared to their parents' generation. This lends itself to a propensity to want to live in a vibrant place and not mind, in fact cherish, the fact that there are so many others unlike ourselves. As we come out of this Great Recession and finally find the jobs we need to start our lives, you will see a huge shift toward the city.


  • Buy_Used

    "I like that people need cars to visit."
    I guess the fact that cars are a major public health hazard and that this country is dangerously dependent on OPI (other people's oil) hasn't reached the mainstream. Do a little reading on "peak oil" and I guarantee you'll lose all sorts of smugness about our uniquely American energy-intensive lifestyle.

  • S65

    I've lived in places where I had shared walls with my neighbors. Where my floor was somebody else's cieling, and somebody else's floor was my ceiling. Never again. I didn't love it, and it damned sure did not make me happy. I'm sick to death of moralistic busybodies trying to tell me that I'm supposed to love what they claim is "best". You want to live in an urban rathole with filth on the sidewalks and ranting nutcases on the corners? Knock yourself out. Me, not so much. I'll stick with my suburban house, my driveway big enough for my car, my wife's car, and my work truck. And no shared walls.

  • Guest

    If I had to pick now where to live the rest of my life...I'd pick a burb type of place.  I do LOVE that there's TONS to do in cities, but on the other hand, I love cleanliness, space at home, and driving/parking easily.  And I'm not so sure about it being better for the environment to live in a city....when I lived in the burbs I recycled b/c it was easy.  Here, I'd have to store and transport it....which is a pain so I pitch it.  Sorry :/

  • Mark Brodeur

    Thought provoking article. I am a "downtown guy" and work as the Director for Center City Development with the City of San Antonio. I live and work downtown. San Antonio has great access to transit (streetcar coming next), culture and a feeling of connectivity. We arguably have the best linear park in the USA known as the Riverwalk.  Apartment developers in our downtown are accepting deposits on urban lofts before they are ready for occupants and "lease up" rates are off the charts......HOWEVER....not everyone equates happiness with an urban lifestyle.
    I am finding that there is a specific demographic in San Antonio that is seeking out a downtown lifestyle.
    In a nutshell, young urban professionals without children, and empty-nesters like me are the target audience. The inner city neighborhoods (1/2 mile) around downtown are also burgeoning urban areas.
    Families with kids live further out in the suburbas. Why? Hard to say really, but my suspicion after talking to these folks has to do with the quality of schools, parks and sports leagues. That's what I hear.
    Sure, they all hate the commute but parents (and I was no exception) tend to sacrifice lifestyle for the good of their kids. So, some "people are happiest" in urban areas.

  • Mark Bergin

    Just a note from the north, San Antonio has to be one of the most amazing cities I've ever visited! What a spectacular--in a human sense--downtown. I could spend endless days on the Riverwalk.

  • Brnb

    Interesting article, but your conclusion is biased in my opinion: " the style of densely-packed living that’s best for our planet is also where people are happiest". Compared to what? If I understand well, the study you quote "surveyed residents of 10 major international cities". First: does "cities" include the suburbs (I guess it does) and if so, to what extent. Then: there's no comparison between people from cities and people from rural areas. Agreed, inside a city, one probably feels better in aesthetically pleasing, safe areas with good transportation, facilities etc., than in some other less favoured districts. Agreed, there might exist happiness discrepancies among those 10 cities, related to the quality of the urban environment. But you can't conclude from those facts only that "people are happiest in dense cities". Another question your conclusion raises is "is the densely-packed living style the best for our planet?" 

  • Kevin Lee

    Ms. Schwartz, generally, I agree with the points made in the article.  Yes, cities aid people's interaction, they produce a certain kind of culture and a certain level of density does contribute to the mental well-being of a city's inhabitants.  Let's face it, we are social creatures by heart and we do need some form of "human" interaction.  

    However, I agree with Casey's comments that suburbs provide amenities unavailable in dense cities like New York.  I'd like to add that your article completely forgoes that cities, like people, come in different scales.  Not every city every can grow to the size of Manhattan, nor should they be expected to.  Rural towns and mid-sized cities and *GASP* suburbs also produce a certain kind of culture and a way of life that cannot be stereotyped with such broad strokes painted in this article and the mentioned study.

    If the feeling of "connectedness" is the key to a person's happiness, then such feelings/awareness, I'd argue, can be produced in suburban conditions.  As a matter of fact, having grown up in suburbia, I can confidently tell you that a sense of community and a sense of contentment in that community (over both tangible and intangible things) do exist in American built environments of lower density.  One can see this through interaction between neighbors over quintessential suburban activities like high school football games, neighborhood yard sales, and holiday decorations to name a few. 

    The issue of connectivity should be observed on a gradient, not simply rendered in black and white.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    I grew up in a suburb as well--one that's full of culture and community. But as I mention, I'm talking about a certain kind of suburb that has become all too common in the U.S.: the gated (or isolated) suburb where people don't know each other and where you have to get on the highway just to grab a snack. And on the whole, I do believe that cities foster more of a sense of connectedness than many suburbs.

  • SuperShrug

    Exiting the front door, I don't like that it's common area where I can encounter neighbors that will monopolize my time. I like space and trees. I like that the things I need aren't within walking distance to slyly ensure that my wallet is always empty. I like that people need cars to visit, and could not have been "just passing by" my building. I like being able to leave and arrive when I please and move at my own pace. I like that when I get where I'm going, I can just park on the street or whatever, and not have to pay the cost of a meal in order to park every day. I like that when I'm having a bad day, I can crank beats without fearing a sudden knock for noise violation. These are all things sacrificed, for a higher cost of living no less, in the city.

    But most especially, I like that all of that complexity and arbitrary hassle is a distant cluster of concrete 20 minutes away. The only thing the city does for me is generate money; if I could ever find the same amount in the suburbs, I'd never venture into the city.

  • Wesley

    In Beautiful, Well-Designed Cities Makes People Happy read more m a k e c a s h 4 . [c o m]

  • Julie Ng

    Sorry, but how can we conclude that people are happier in cities if *only* people from 10 select cities were interviewed? 

    While, I agree with most points in the article, it's still based on a huge logical fallacy to be considered a "result" from a "study". Let's just call it what it is, a survey with an agenda.

  • Sergiof_unb

     Good point. I usually believe that availability and quality of public services are a must for choosing where to live. However, the research is a manicheistic one: suburbs (evil) versus downtown (good). It misses the point that there are a lot of small towns that also offers good services with a plus of a non polluted environment.

  • Casey

    Totally agree. Plus, not everyone has the same priorities. Some people prefer a more peaceful and quiet, secluded life in the burbs. Some people want or need bigger properties that they wouldn't be able to afford in the city. They want to be able to park freely.  They want better school systems for their kids. They want big parks to play in and grass for their dogs. ETC ETC.