What makes a city livable?
In 2015, a team led by Abraham Goldberg, a professor at the University of South Carolina, gathered data from residents of five cities to find out.
The usual markers for happiness — the “Big Seven,” as they’re known to social scientists — are wealth, family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, as established by Richard Layard of the London School of Economics in 2005.
None of them appeared in Goldberg’s findings, which were as remarkable as they were unexpected. Happiness, for the residents he studied, owed more to aesthetics than to anything on Layard’s list. What made them happy was living in a beautiful city surrounded by history, green spaces, noteworthy architecture, and the like.
Why should we care about a four-year-old study? Because great societies are best judged by the people who live in them. Because happiness as it equates to municipal design and amenities has serious implications for urban planners. Because happy people are healthier, better able to withstand the tensions of life in the big city (smaller cities, too).
Which brings us to April 27. At 10 a.m., volunteers will meet at Norwalk City Hall, where Mayor Harry Rilling will hand out gloves and bags, T-shirts and tools to participants in The Mayor’s Clean City Initiative Spring Cleanup. Teams will take before-and-after pictures of their chosen locations for a gift card drawing. Win or lose, their pictures will capture the immense satisfaction that comes of sprucing up one’s little corner of the world.
Whatever our differences, surely we can all rally behind a campaign to beautify our city. Anyone who’s ever followed an overloaded garbage truck spewing its contents along city streets; whose walk in the park has been marred by the discovery of soda cans or food wrappers; whose morning run included stepping in a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk, knows how badly Norwalk needs tidying.
“Ugliness is so grim,” Lady Bird Johnson, the Marie Kondo of her time, wrote in her diary. “A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lesson tensions.” The former first lady was referring to civil rights and the Vietnam War, but our times are no less contentious, our need for beauty no less essential.
That quest for beauty, natural or manmade, used to be a bigger part of the national dialogue, informing art and architecture, parks and public works projects. Fifty years ago, it inspired the first environmental laws, and brought into sharp relief the need for cleaner water, wetlands, and air.
“We do not intend to live in the midst of abundance, isolated from neighbors and nature, confined by blighted cities and bleak suburbs,” President Lyndon Johnson said in his 1965 State of the Union address.
Fifty years later, conservationist Doug Tompkins wrote, “If anything can save the world, I’d put my money on beauty.” We’d take that bet.
See you on the 27th.