​Not Happy? Call a Planner!

What do planners have to do with happiness?

Two articles in the current Summer 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 82, No. 3) address that very question in different ways.

Planning for Happy Neighborhoods

In "Planning for Happy Neighborhoods," authors Deirdre Pfeiffer and Scott Cloutier argue that happiness is a key component of health and healthy communities, important concerns on the current planning agenda. Planners, however, have traditionally focused all their attention on physical health, ignoring actions and policies that can improve people's mental and emotional health and well-being — an equally important goal.

In their review essay the authors first assess what various disciplines think about happiness, how they measure it, and what they know about how happiness can be improved at the neighborhood level, the focus of so many planning efforts. They identify three factors, or drivers, of happiness that seem most related to the issues that planners can and do directly address: access to open and green space, environmental design that promotes social interaction, and places that are safe and secure.

The authors suggest ways to measure and improve all three factors by incorporating the right elements into traditional health impact assessments which evaluate the extent to which proposed plans, policies, and projects lead to better health outcomes.

Health impact assessments, they argue, would address important dimensions of happiness if the approach included criteria to assess all three planning factors found to be related to people's happiness. The authors also describe a tool they developed and have used, the Sustainability Through Happiness Framework, which complements health impact assessments by allowing planners to engage with neighborhood residents to develop better ways to create happy places to live.

The authors encourage planners to work to understand how, why, and when neighborhoods make people happier and healthier and to develop planning strategies that address the complex and intertwined approaches needed to create happier places to live, work, play, conduct the activities of daily living, and socialize.

Parks for an Aging Population

The happiness essay reverberates poignantly with another article in the same issue of JAPA, "Parks for an Aging Population: Needs and Preferences of Low-Income Seniors in Los Angeles," by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Lené Levy-Storms, Lin Chen, and Madeline Brozen.

The authors describe the challenges facing low-income inner-city elders from diverse backgrounds who struggle to safely enjoy what little open space and greenery their neighborhood provides: public parks. Parks can be very important to seniors because they provide important psychological, physiological, and mental well-being benefits, particularly to those living in dense neighborhoods lacking meaningful access to nature and natural environments.

The authors attempt to understand exactly what seniors seek in neighborhood parks and the difficulties they face in accessing and using available park facilities.

They interviewed 39 elders living in inner-city Los Angeles, an area with the lowest amount of park acreage per capita in the city. They found that seniors often avoid neighborhood parks out of fear for their safety and security both traveling to and interacting in the parks, and because park programs and available facilities are not appropriate for, or sensitive to, their needs and desires.

For example, seniors report being afraid of the boisterous activities of younger park users, the potential for tripping or falling in the park or on the way there, and fear of crime because of litter and people who frighten them, like the homeless and drunks. Seniors also wanted different kinds of opportunities to meet and socialize with others, for ways to "bump into" people with whom to talk, and facilities that would make socializing possible like places to sit in the shade and picnic and talk with friends.

The authors suggest that planners need to undertake four specific activities to ensure that seniors gain the health, and yes happiness, benefits that parks can offer:

  1. Develop appropriate and sensitive park programs and activities to meet the needs of local seniors.
  2. Find creative ways to meet the desire of seniors to be separated from other park users.
  3. Ensure personal security and safety within the park and along routes to the park.
  4. Develop services and programs that compensate for the lack of natural environments in the high-density neighborhoods in which they live.

The authors suggest that seniors from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds may have varying desires for social and cultural park programming but more research is needed. As in so many planning challenges the authors find that it is crucial to involve users in major decisions about design and programming elements in park planning and operation.

Top image: Detail of arcade sign in Blackpool, England. Photo by Flickr user drinks machine (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

About the Author
Sandi Rosenbloom is the editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association.

August 24, 2016

By Sandra Rosenbloom