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Metro Cities: Happiness by design — how cities can make us less lonely

“Research shows we can design cities to support the human connections that make life richer and happier,” says Charles Montgomery, author and principal of Happy City.

“Research shows we can design cities to support the human connections that make life richer and happier,” says Charles Montgomery, author and principal of Happy City.

Andres Plana / Metro

“Research shows we can design cities to support the human connections that make life richer and happier,” says Charles Montgomery, author and principal of Happy City.

The latest census showed Canadians are living alone more than ever, and in today’s cities, it’s far too easy to go long stretches not seeing friends outside of work. The toll on our mental health is staggering. An oft-cited analysis from Bringham Young University shows loneliness can increase the likelihood of dying early by close to 30 per cent. Depression alone costs the Canadian economy $32 billion a year, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

“The city is part of the problem, and part of the solution,” says Charles Montgomery, author and principal of Happy City, a consultancy firm that uses research on well being to help cities around the world. “Research shows we can design cities to support the human connections that make life richer and happier.”

Here are a few ideas from Montgomery’s research for how we make that happen.

Collide: Casual interactions boost happiness just as having close family and friends do. So cities where people meet each other on the sidewalk, buy groceries from humans, and frequent coffee shops can help us fight loneliness.

Park it: Studies have shown that access to green space, even just seeing it from the window, can have a positive impact on mental health. And it doesn’t need to be a grand forest — everyday green space that people are likely to encounter in the regular course of their lives is vital, according to Layla McCay, founder of the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health.

Common space: Useful rooms shared by multiple units, like storage or workshops, give people a practical place to run into each other. More entrances for fewer units makes neighbours feel more connected.

Get close: The further friends live from each other, the less they are likely to meet up. In more compact communities, it's easier for friends to already be near each other when they happen to find time.

Get involved: Volunteers tend to be happier because they feel a sense of meaning when they work with others on something bigger than themselves, studies have shown. Local community gardens and tool libraries give people a chance to help each other out while becoming happier.

Socialize in space: Church goers are happy and increasingly so with the frequency of church attendance, according to a 2006 survey from the Pew Research Centre. Recreation centres and other public facilities should have areas designed for people to hang out. We need more "loitering encouraged" signs, Montgomery said.

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