Podcast: People Behind the Plans

Megan Oliver on How to Plan for Happiness in Cities

About This Episode

Planners can design places for many purposes: to promote commerce, to protect us from natural disasters, and to uplift historical significance. As mental health and social relationships become increasingly significant, new questions rise to the top: What about planning for the way people feel? How can planners better understand how environments impact well-being and then learn to shape more joyful, healing spaces?

In this episode of People Behind the Plans, Megan Oliver, AICP, WELL AP, founder of Hello Happy Design, discusses how the intersection of neuroscience and planning — called neurourbanism — can provide planners with the necessary tools to design places for social and emotional health. Oliver also speaks to the rising awareness of neurodiversity and how we can change our assumptions about how community members engage with the people and places around them.

This episode was sponsored by Nexus at the University of Michigan

Episode Transcript

Meghan Stromberg: This episode is sponsored by the University of Michigan. Learn how to build a resilient and sustainable community with the three-day scenario planning for Urban Futures Certificate Course from Nexus at the University of Michigan. This course will run May 20th through May 22nd and is available remotely or in person in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Visit nexus.engin.umich.edu to learn more and explore early bird pricing. That's nexus.engin.umich.edu. Register and become a lifelong learner with Nexus.


Megan Oliver: Setting out to plan happy cities doesn't require us to throw out the great lessons that we've already learned and start fresh, because we kind of inherently know some of these things, and it's already just at the core of our profession. Every planner I've ever talked to explains to me how they've entered the field of planning because they have this drive to make the world a better, often happier place.


Meghan Stromberg: Welcome to People Behind the Plans. I'm Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief of the American Planning Association. Planners know the inherent benefits of public spaces, tree-lined, walkable communities and small businesses where people know your name. We know that humans crave social connection and how the places we experience can impact our social lives. Put simply, there are aspects of our built natural environments that make us feel good, inspire us and help us to reset and recharge. And today, there is an emerging interest in the intersection of planning and mental health, and how we can intentionally design happy places.


Our guest Megan Oliver, AICP, is the founder of Hello Happy Design and an expert on happiness and spatial design. In 2023, she gave the keynote at the APA Washington Chapter conference about her research around neuro-urbanism or planning that considers how the human brain works. Our conversation today will shed some light on how this emerging field can help planners who want to shape more joyful, healing spaces. Megan's work is adding to the conversation about how environments impact people's well-being and what planners can do to boost the important social connections that ultimately make places great. Megan, welcome to People Behind the Plans.


Megan Oliver: Thank you so much, Meghan. I'd like to just start by saying, I'm so grateful to be here, to have this conversation with you and to share my story with all the listeners.


Meghan Stromberg: Oh, we're glad to have you, too. Thank you. It must be absolutely fascinating and delightful to study happiness as a planner. How did you discover this topic?


Megan Oliver: It's a joy. I wish that I knew when I was younger that happiness researcher was a potential job title. Like, who wouldn't want to pursue that? Looking back, I realized that I've kind of been pointed in this direction the whole time through the entirety of my personal, academic and professional life. And I've just always been attuned to the way that my surroundings impact my mood, my energy and my attention. Even in high school, I was way more interested in the design of my bedroom than any other kid I knew. So naturally, when I wanted to go to school, I looked into interior design, architecture, urban design and during those studies, I learned about the field of environmental psychology, which explores the relationship between human behavior and environment. It was unfortunately incredibly difficult, though, to find resources or mentors at the time, and I kind of regret that it's still challenging today. It wasn't until about 10 years into my planning career that I finally had that ‘aha’ moment, if you will.


Meghan Stromberg: What was that ‘aha’ moment?


Megan Oliver: I'm glad you asked. This, I will warn you, is where my story pivots to a kind of heavier part of my life. But it's really necessary, I think, to understand the headspace I was in. I was kind of dealing with a lot. I had just begun the process of separating from my partner of 12 years, when I received the news that my mom had brain cancer and her prognosis was just months to live. She was a fighter, and she was a stubborn woman, so she ultimately held on for almost five years. In that time, however, I lost two cats. I moved three times, and I found myself in a job that just, you know, was not the right fit for me. And then in 2019, my family was caught off guard when my dad was diagnosed with liver cancer. And in a matter of months, he was gone.


Meghan Stromberg: Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry.


Megan Oliver: Thank you. It was a tumultuous few years, of course, to say the least. And I promise that the happiness part of things is just around the corner. So I am also a strong believer that we need to accept all of our emotions, regardless of whether they're positive or negative, and recognize the power that they have on us. In this particular instance, it was the struggles that precisely led me to consider happiness. So, long story short, by the end of 2019, I was wrestling with a lot. I really wanted to find a way to channel what I was feeling and the emotion that I had constructively into my work. I just didn't know how I was going to do that.


It wasn't until I saw a talk by Shawn Achor, positive psychologist, when a light bulb just came on with such force in my mind that it exploded. I had been investing all this time in my own personal development, and I just thought, what if we could offer the same sort of self-help for cities to introduce play-based strategies for improving well-being, not just for individuals but for entire communities. I realized I was doing all of this personal work to get into a better head space, but I was still navigating a world that was largely oblivious to my mental health needs or even just mental health in general. And I felt like this was where I needed to direct my attention. I set out to launch my own research initiative, Hello Happy Design on World Happiness Day in 2020, which is March 20, 2020. And as you probably recall, five days earlier, the entire country shut down in response to the pandemic. And so suddenly the need to create joyful, healing spaces was just amplified.


Meghan Stromberg: It’s an awful lot for one person to deal with in a short span of time, but I love this story of how you've channeled that and channeled your own learning and personal development into what you called self-help for communities. That's really a great phrase. When a lot of us think about happiness, we think about what you mentioned—the World Happiness Report that comes out every March, where it ranks cities based on their happiness. What does that really tell us? And more importantly, what does it have to do with planning?


Megan Oliver: The World Happiness Report, in my mind, is a great conversation starter because it tugs at our natural competitiveness. We need to know who's doing better than who, who's happier than everybody else. And while the topic of national happiness might at first seem a little bit airy, it's actually grounded in really rigorous scientific research. So for over a decade now, the World Happiness Report has come out every March on World Happiness Day, and it aggregates survey data from 160 countries that are surveyed in the Gallup World poll. And in order to come up with the final ranking, it tracks subjective measures of personal well-being. So it asks people how happy they feel or how well they feel their life is going, and it combines that with a number of other quality-of-life factors. These factors include gross domestic product, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption. That's corruption of public institutions and entities. Each year, additional variables are also studied and included in the report. So, for instance, past reports have looked at access to nearby nature and its role in boosting positive moods or the importance of a community's social fabric. Its focus is very much within the realm of urban planning, and as planners, we can look to the World Happiness Report to see what the latest science can tell us about shaping communities to better cultivate connection, to foster greater trust and to nurture pro-social behaviors. It can both inform our processes and the outcomes of our work.


Meghan Stromberg: So, Megan, does happiness show up in classic planning literature, or are there principles that planners can tie back to, like the AICP Code of Ethics, for instance?


Megan Oliver: Absolutely. That's one of the things that I really love about this area of study. Setting out to plan happy cities doesn't require us to throw out the great lessons that we've already learned and start fresh. Because, you said in the beginning, we kind of inherently know some of these things, and it's already just at the core of our profession. So every planner I've ever talked to explains to me how they've entered the field of planning because they have this drive to make the world a better, often happier place. And if we ever lose sight of that initial resolution, the AICP Code of Ethics does remind us that we, as planners, have a special responsibility to serve the public interest, to expand choice and opportunity, and to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged. Our core directive is to improve community well-being. Modern planning theory is based on classical design principles and lessons from the 20th century urban thinkers. And now that we're learning more every day about the science of well-being and about what it means to make places happier and more connected, we're just reinforcing that knowledge. So rather than discredit planning theory, new scientific studies like neuro-urbanism are complementing and reinforcing the concepts and principles intuited by planning’s great urban thinkers. And it serves to just solidify the importance of urban planning.


Meghan Stromberg: We'll be right back with Megan Oliver, when we'll discuss neuro-urbanism and planning. But first, a word from our sponsor. Register for the three-day Urban Planning Certificate Course from Nexus at the University of Michigan. Attend May 20th through 22nd remotely or in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Practice how to create sustainable communities. Visit nexus.engin.umich.edu to learn more. That's nexus.engin.umich.edu.


Welcome back to People Behind the Plans. Our guest is Megan Oliver, the happiness expert. Megan, I've read a little bit about neuro-urbanism, which seems to be an emerging and interdisciplinary field. Can you describe for us what it is and why it's important for planning, maybe particularly at this time.


Megan Oliver: In the 1950s and 1960s, folks like Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch were making waves in the planning profession as they shifted focus towards the way that people engage with the environment. At the same time, neurosciences were developing a greater understanding of how people respond to their environments, and ideas from this new field of neuroscience have since been merging with other professions to create interdisciplinary areas of study. There are things like neuropsychology, neuro-leadership and neuroeconomics, just to name a few. So of course there's also neuro-urbanism, and this is a new study that really helps to root well-being of places in a robust understanding of what's happening in our brains and our bodies. So it uses methods of studying brain activity and physical changes in the body in response to different stimuli. What that means is that scientists and planners are partnering and coming together to measure how our bodies are responding to different environmental cues. So, for instance, Ann Sussman and Dr. Justin Hollander have been studying eye gaze, which maps where a person is drawn to look when they're peering at a building or looking down the street. This has implications, of course, for both architectural design and navigation. Others are using biometric technology to measure things like changes in heart rate as we walk down a street, or as we bike along a busy road. Others still are using these kind of funky helmets that measure electrical pulses in our heads, helping planners to see which parts of the brains are activated in, say, dense urban environments compared with lush green spaces.


With all of these new studies, I just think of how much our work is going to evolve in the coming years as we continue to learn more and more, and this information can help people move around more easily feel relaxed. Just to be clear, neuro-urbanism isn't expecting that all planners are going to go out tomorrow and become neuroscientists. It's unreasonable, but we just need to fold this new research that others are doing into our practice or partner with different groups to advance this research. And I just want to share one example of a partnership I really loved. In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) teamed up with researchers from Temple University to view their transit system through fresh eyes. Like, quite literally, they used eye-tracking glasses on people who were not familiar with the system, and they place a special interest on the elderly and differently abled people to understand what they're seeing when they move through the different stations. Their findings revealed that there were certain pain points where people lost that ability to navigate or to clearly understand where they were expected to go. These findings helped them to redesign system maps and overall wayfinding to improve ease of navigation and the overall experience of system users.


Meghan Stromberg: Oh, that's such a great example. I was going to ask you for an example, and you beat me to it. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about the other side of happiness. Last year, the Surgeon General released a pretty alarming report. The report suggests that changing our digital environments is just as important as our physical ones, given how much time we spend online. What role does technology play in this work?


Megan Oliver: Research suggests that technology is a bit of a catch 22, right? It brings benefits along with some challenges. So on the positive side of things, technology can help us stay connected with one another across great distances. During the pandemic, this was an incredible resource to be able to talk with friends and family and loved ones all the way around the world as we were social distancing. But on the flip side, technology may actually be making it harder to connect with others, especially in one-on-one exchanges, and it can sometimes reduce the quality of those interactions, which is alarming because, as this report indicated, we know that social connection is vital for our well-being. Clearly, the tech industry really has their feet to the fire with solving this challenge.


But planners, too, need to be aware of how our use of different technology tools, and sometimes our dependency on these tools is impacting our communities. In our planning efforts, the tools that we employ could make it easier for some people to come and interact with a project, but they could also deepen the digital divide for some groups of people entirely. And that's not to say that technology is evil. As the field of neuro-urbanism is revealing, technology is not only making our cities and communities smarter, but it's helping to make them healthier, too. In my opinion, if we're to use our technology superpowers for good, we first need to think about internet access as a public utility, not just a luxury afforded to some. Then we can start to use technology to make life better for everybody in the community. We can use real-time data to improve the experience for transit riders. We can use QR codes and geofencing to provide tailored and interactive experiences for people when they're in public spaces, and we can create and utilize apps that help people to interact with public agencies. And whatever we do, I think the end goal of tech solutions should be facilitating connections between people and place, government and community.


Meghan Stromberg: We're all becoming much more aware of neurodiversity and, frankly, seeing how much we all have to gain when we learn more about how we can embrace difference in this area. What does it look like for the planning practice to intentionally consider neurodiversity?


Megan Oliver: I was so, so pleased to hear multiple sessions bring up neurodiversity during last year's Planning Conference. For anyone listening who may not be as familiar with the terms, neurodiversity describes the range of differences in how our brains function and how we behave. People with autism are sometimes described as being, quote, on the spectrum, but we're all on the spectrum. That's just how spectrums work, right? Until recently, most of the world has been designed for the neurotypical people without much consideration for the needs of so-called neurodivergent people—for instance, people with autism, people with ADHD, sensory processing disorders, dyspraxia and mental health conditions. As we are learning more about people's diverse sensory and information-processing needs, planners can improve our practice from the way that we engage with our coworkers and the workplace, to the methods that we use to engage with community members, to the ways that we shape our physical communities. And planning for neurodiversity can mean creating easily navigable spaces, being mindful of sensory stimuli and producing sensory maps of areas based on intensity. That's like mapping the noisiest streets, for example.


I'm starting to see provisions for these needs happening all over the world. There's a global program now that certifies autism-friendly cities. The Design Trust for Public Space in New York City is partnering with other New York City groups to reimagine public spaces in support of neurodiversity. And in the past few months alone, I've seen a lot more consideration for neurodiverse needs in my own backyard. Prince George's County, Maryland, for example—they've been introducing sensory safe environments during their park events. So at one event I attended, there was a dimly lit, quiet room. Inside, it offered toys and nooks and things to help people to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors. And then a couple of weeks later, I went to the Maryland Center for History and Culture, which was having a delightful Jim Henson exhibit. If it's traveling to a city near you, I highly recommend it. It was lovely. It provided a museum map that located the quiet areas that warned of potentially overstimulating exhibits. It outlined all the resources available to neurodiverse visitors. Meanwhile, playgrounds all over the world are now being extra mindful of the equipment that they're using, the color palettes, the textures, the materials used, so as to not overstimulate children with neurodiverse needs.


I work at a landscape architecture and planning firm, Mahan Rykiel Associates, and there I get to spend time shaping parks and public spaces. And while I'm working on those projects, I try to not only figure out those spots where we can introduce gathering areas for people to come together, but I'm also trying to ensure that we're crafting ample, intimate little nooks and refuges for folks who want to be near others, but who want or need a quiet spot just of their own.


The reality, of course, is that planners still have a ways to go. I'm still learning about how to best create communities for neurodiverse populations. We understand largely at this point what accessible means from a physical standpoint. But neurodiversity includes many hidden disabilities, and planners have a lot to learn about how our communities can be accessible from a neurodiversity perspective. In short, if we want happy, joyful communities, we need to be deliberate about creating spaces that support well-being for everyone.


Meghan Stromberg: Absolutely. And you know, some of the ways that planners can learn more about neurodiversity needs, I imagine, is also to make sure that the events, the meetings where community engagement is taking place, also take into consideration the needs of the neurodiverse in the communities.


Megan Oliver: Right. And like you're saying, to this point, if we're able to create a better environment to get information or feedback from the community, that's only going to serve to help that project in the long run. So in all of these ways, it's not just beneficial for one population. It's a win win, win, win, win, win, win for everybody involved.


Meghan Stromberg: It's a lot of wins.


Megan Oliver: Yes.


Meghan Stromberg: I kind of want to close this wonderful conversation with where we began—so happiness in planning. And I'm wondering if you can give our listeners a few tips or resources that they can explore to learn more about the topic and even start incorporating it into their work today.


Megan Oliver: Oh yeah, I have many, so buckle up. Step one, I think, is recognizing and improving our own mental health. I cannot overemphasize this. Every day we need to be asking ourselves, ‘What headspace am I in, and in what ways does that impact how I'm showing up for others?’ If we need to improve that headspace, we need to go do more of the things that we love, that bring us joy and that re-energize us. We shouldn't feel guilty about that at all. If we're burnt out, drained, annoyed, I don't know how we're supposed to help our communities come to solutions to those big, ugly problems.


We also need to be mindful and deliberate in our actions with others. So, as you and I have discussed, March 2020 was a big month. One great thing that came out of it was the JAPA Takeaway in Planning Magazine, so you can still find the piece online on planning.org. Ward Lyles, AICP, and Stacey Swearingen White talk about planning's emotional paradox and the need for planners to be more in touch with their own emotions. There are some other API resources that I really like. I highly recommend two sessions from last year's conference, Critical Communication Skills for Planners and one called Building Communities for the Sake of Mental Health.


As for what we can do in our communities, we can bring well-being to the forefront and center in our master plans as core objectives, and then we can get better about measuring and benchmarking well-being. As we're seeking to learn about well-being in our communities, we can partner with researchers, academic institutions, local hospitals, and all of these groups can help us to further study the impacts of place on health and happiness.


Certainly, we ought to be advocating for funding that supports this sort of research, as well as social infrastructure and community programming. As for resources, I have a few favorites. Of course, I recommend diving into the World Happiness Report every March, as they have a great piece on global well-being and challenges and opportunities. And I also adore the Canadian design and planning firm Happy Cities, founded by Charles Montgomery, author of the book Happy City. They are principally focused on this sort of work, and to our benefit, they're often sharing a great deal of knowledge on their website and in their newsletter. And then lastly—I told you it was going to be a lot—a few books that I've just loved. First is Drunk Tank Pink: and Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave by Adam Alter. It talks about how we're impacted, often on a subconscious level, by different qualities in the world around us. Paul Keedwell's Headspace: the Psychology of City Living ties a lot of research on human evolution with how that might explain our preferences for certain spaces over others with a similar focus. There are two books by Dr. Justin Hollander and Anne Sussman. They pair evolutionary research with modern biometric studies that help to explain our preferences in urban design and architecture. The first is Cognitive Architecture, and their most recent book is Urban Experience and Design. And finally, I love the work of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. The founders, Jenny Roe and Layla McCay, recently published their book Restorative Cities, which advances the design and planning that brings mental health and well-being to the forefront.


Meghan Stromberg: That is a wonderful list. Well, Megan, this has been such a fun conversation. It's made me very happy to have you as a guest on People Behind the Plans. Thank you so much.


Megan Oliver: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I am energized by this conversation, and I'm really hopeful that listeners can make it their resolution for the rest of the year to help plan happier, more joyful places.


Meghan Stromberg: Me too. Our guest today on People Behind the Plans has been Megan Oliver, AICP. She's the founder of Hello Happy Design and an expert on happiness in planning.


This episode was sponsored by the University of Michigan. Learn how to build a resilient and sustainable community with the three-day scenario planning for Urban Futures Certificate Course from Nexus at the University of Michigan. This course will run May 20th through May 22nd and is available remotely or in person in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Visit nexus.engin.umich.edu to learn more and explore early bird pricing. That's nexus.engin.umich.edu. Register and become a lifelong learner with Nexus.


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