Index > Briefing
Thursday, December 10, 2020
How to Make Streets Happier

If it happens that one day you find that the streets are suddenly full of colorful decorations and fascinating designs, the hard concrete floor transformed into a field of grass, amusement facilities added to both sides of the street, children playing whole-heartedly, and adults are relaxing and enjoying the sunshine, you would probably be looking at a street that has undergone a "Happy Street" transformation.

The prototype of the "Happy Street" can be traced back to the 1970s. In 1971, with "quality of life", "mobility", and "sharing" becoming key concepts, cities in the Netherlands, the United States and other Western countries began to build streets that better improved the wellbeing of its people. When this became an indispensable attribute of the street, the city began to further upgrade. The focuses which were previously "quality of life", "mobility" and "sharing" have since shifted to "playfulness", "enjoyability" and "happiness". With this, the concept of "Happy Street" was born. In 2013, Charles Montgomery clearly framed the concept of "Happy Street" in his bookHappy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. Happy Street can be understood as a well-designed, welcoming, safe and inclusive public space in the city. It is the emotional infrastructure of a happy city that is often small-scale, simple, cost-effective, and has a special impact on cities and public places where it can improve people's social relationships, even significantly enhancing the happiness of urban residents. After the concept of "Happy Street" was introduced, it quickly attracted the attention of many Western cities. Excited by the successful experiences of constructing happy streets in cities such as Vancouver in Canada, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Copenhagen in Denmark, more and more cities in the West have joined the wave of "happiness" since 2015, where it has now become a means of revitalization and street prosperity.

From the practice of Western cities, the construction of "Happy Street" is often inseparable from four major elements: "street facilities", "street interface", "green spaces" and "street colors".

First of all, it has been shown that setting-up more facilities on the streets will allow for more enjoyable urban activities. This approach can increase community attachment and residents' self-identity and is also an important foundation for creating happy urban spaces. According to the types of activities, these "facilities" can be divided into playgrounds, barefoot trails and flash spaces. Among them, the playground treats urban spaces as a "playing infrastructure" and uses a variety of game methods to enable the crowd to interact with the city streets. For example, in Bristol, England, "park and slides" are planted on beautiful but empty streets, so that anyone who walks on the slide becomes a performer, and the people on both sides become the audience. Urban memories and stories are in fact a simple way of using the power of games to promote public participation and interaction between people and cities. Barefoot trails are an upgraded version of ordinary walking trails, and as the name implies, it allows people to walk barefoot. For example, in some high-end communities in Rotterdam, designers and art groups filled small wooden boxes with different types of soil and placed them on the road as barefoot trails, inviting people to walk, play, and even dance on them barefoot, stimulating vitality and liveliness. The flash space is a low-cost, fast, and temporary space. To cite an example, in 2018, Rotterdam experimented with a new modular parklet (PRKLT) project, which temporarily installed colorful parklets outside of schools, usually for a week, to provide students and parents with a space to enjoy their meals, rest and play sports. These "modular parklets" are actually pop-up spaces, and their implantation not only effectively reduces the use of cars, but also brings more laughter and joy to the streets, making the environment happier and more enjoyable to live in.

"Street interface" on the other hand, focuses on the edges of the open street. Danish urban design consultant Jan Gehl once pointed out that, long and lifeless exterior walls will not only speed up people's movement but will also cause uncomfortable physical emotions; on the contrary if a street has different exterior walls, a large number of openings or high functional density in each block, people will slow down. Therefore, for the purpose of intensifying the happy atmosphere in street spaces, opening street edges is a necessary step. In order to eliminate the inherent barriers of closed and rigid building exterior walls in the reinforced concrete forest, Western cities often use social or personalized elements and even stimulating visual elements. Such cities would redesign street interface from the perspective of security, sense of participation, and visual beauty, so as to enhance the happiness of residents.

Industry experts once pointed out that green space plays an important role in promoting social interaction and building community cohesion. Its quality and quantity not only affect people's mood, but also the degree of contact between people. Generally speaking, when it comes to green spaces, people subconsciously think of natural green spaces such as gardens and meadows. The reality is that there are many better options. For example, rooftop vegetable gardens which can be commonly found in cities such as New York and Tokyo would be one such option. In the practice of some Happy Streets, it is quite common for vacant public spaces on the streets or vacant roofs of street buildings to be changed into a vegetable garden closer to people's lives, as a green meeting place for people to engage in conversations. Compared with ordinary gardens and green spaces, these vegetable gardens can more easily bring people a sense of intimacy and comfort, allowing them to eliminate anxiety, relax, and obtain real happiness.

The colors in the streets too, are an important element. Colors penetrate through vision and affect people's feelings. During this process, the reactions and changes that affect people are extremely complex. It includes both spatial perception and mental perception. Therefore, in the process of constructing Happy Streets, the usage of color often takes both aspects into consideration. Spatial perception-wise, the higher the perceptibility of colors, the clearer the spatial experience. The spatial perception mainly comes from two aspects: the overall spatial effect, and the position of the color carrier in the space. For example, in Rotterdam's plan to intervene in some busy intersections by introducing "Happy Street", the overall use of fragmented patterns and tension-filled colors makes the general atmosphere of the intersection softer and more relaxed. Of course, in order to allow people to perceive that they have reached a crossroad more clearly, they should pay special attention to passing vehicles. In the plans, large and elaborate artistic graffiti is installed at intersections to help people orientate themselves with strong visual impact of colors. Other than spatial perception, mental perception is equally important. This of course, is not merely about people's mood, but also because a city's colors are the foundation of its style. The colors are tied to the memories of the city and its essence, highlighting and conveying a high-level urban spirit. The colors of the city make it more vigorous and livelier, allowing one to easily locate its core.

Therefore, urban colors should meet the basic needs of urban residents, and further satisfy the sense of belonging within the culture of the urban areas and its community. This is often not a top-down labeling behavior, but rather a bottom-up operation.

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