Dear friends, town councilors, local architects, designers, planners, developers, and other interested individuals,
As a Watertown resident researching ways to increase wellbeing and reduce stress in cities, I believe despite recent conflicts this can still be a happy, healthy place to live. Now is the time for government and planners to make decisions that support wellbeing here. After surveying the research I’m convinced that besides relieving poverty, the best way to create wellbeing is to adopt practices researchers find in the healthiest, happiest cultures. Here are two of the most powerful:
1. Easily available in-person socializing: Many Americans barely know their neighbors and don’t have one close friend. Work relationships help but aren’t reliable long-term. Healthy cultures’ socializing is built into daily life. People meet neighbors most days at plazas, village squares, etc. because it’s the norm and everyone does it. There’s striking evidence that mental health deteriorates without such socializing. Researchers think this is because living in tribes helped early humans to survive.
2. Easy-to-get-to nature near home: Most Americans spend far too little time in nature, suffering from what’s now called Nature Deficit Disorder. But there‘s no benefit if time in nature includes industrial noise and fumes. Nature speeds healing and reduces crime, and just being outside in bright light improves mood. Providing ways city-dwellers can easily get close to nature, without noise and fumes, improves everyone’s mental and physical health. Copenhagen residents (who score high on happiness surveys) can walk from the town center to large green spaces in almost every direction within a half hour.
How to add these practices? We like coffee shops and can encourage more to open, but with special details like careful table placement that make meeting new friends easier. These special cafes would be our village squares. With enough of them everyone can walk to one from home. We can make them healthier by adding nature. In my model, designed to include many wellbeing-enhancing elements at once, I used outdoor tables in a garden space, and other de-stressing details. I made a version for apartment buildings. I call all of them “public community hubs” and believe they can dramatically improve wellbeing citywide while reducing costs of crime and healthcare. They can be new or existing cafes. I hope government and business, seeing their value, would help to fund building them or adding healthy details to existing ones that want to be hubs.
I love to imagine life here with these places where we’d find serenity and community, and with more green space, dog parks (they double as nature-filled meeting places), drastic limiting of stressful industrial noise, brilliantly-executed traffic calming using the best brains out there, blocking noise and light from residents near CVS so they can sleep, and a pledge that all future plans promote public wellbeing. That’s what visionary cities try to do, and they become the models for other cities.
With best wishes to the city and city-dwellers,
Watertown resident, and author of the forthcoming book “Stress in the American City”
(Note: Documentation for the above statements is available, as well as photos that help illustrate what makes healthy hub cafes and hub seating areas.)