LETTER: Ideas for Making Watertown a Happy, Healthy Community

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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,

Susan Cooke,
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.)

4 thoughts on “LETTER: Ideas for Making Watertown a Happy, Healthy Community

  1. Watertown is not a city, it is a bedroom community of Boston, a city which is desperate to achieve a truly international stature. To use Copenhagen, a cosmopolitan city and country capital as a role model for Watertown is really ridiculous. Watertown is a nice town, it is nothing special but let’s be honest, it is old, has limited resources and well, it is what it is. Utopian articles and letters such as this one are becoming rather tiring.

    • Ted, I appreciate your comment about bedroom communities. For many who have to work long hours and possibly complicated schedules, anyone’s bedroom becomes a prime living space with little time and energy for anything else. It’s good that you are remarking about this, and I hope many others are beginning to see this — that due to all sorts of factors, like personal economics, availability of good housing, our life style is increasingly challenged.
      For this, I think that what we need are ways to identify which issues are really important to our lives and then find paths to make whatever that is, available to us. As some others have said, Watertown has many great features and is in a terrific location to access the region. I think that we could optimize our successes at addressing all these issues if we can sustain dialogue toward effective planning. You know, a plan with a general direction of a like-minded cohort of people, a number of specific goals, a sense of priorities of these goals, and some continuing good energy and will to pursue this plan. We may think that each one of us cannot get what we want and need and, in fact, think that very little is really possible or that we have nothing to contribute to our surrounding situation. I hold that one voice, whether small or large, can state a vision, because there are many others who would love to share in and refine an initial vision statement.
      In many ways, Fred, you have stated something really important about how you and others live, and about those who want much more. Thank you for your powerful, initiating statement. Look what responses have come forth!

  2. I am not sure Fred is talking about the town where I live. Watertown is not a bedroom community in the sense of towns and villages in Westchester or Long Island. It is an inner ring suburb in a very dense metro area. Watertown is a classic streetcar suburb.

    Further, Watertown has five miles of riverfront, which is an amazing amenity for such a small, dense town. It has a beautiful, if underutilized, Town Square. Watertown Square has some wonderful legacy buildings. The town has a number of food establishments that have become destinations. We are home to a very respectable theatre company.

    The original letter writer has a number of good points. It is easy to access our riverfront from most places in the town. We must encourage and support residents’ use of this natural resource. Mount Auburn Cemetery, which lies mostly in Watertown, is an amazing cultural asset as well as a virtual avian observatory. Access to and enjoyment of nature is a blessing in today’s dissociated world.

    Watertown has many areas where a neighborhood atmosphere still prevails. This is becoming increasingly rare in our country. Venues that give folks the opportunity to gather in a relaxed environment would enhance the ties that make for neighborhood cohesion and calmer, more satisfying lives. Yes, we could use more cafes, and perhaps a bit more entertainment. We could use a movie theatre with interesting programming.

    There are many Watertown folk who grew up in cultures where the cafe played an important role in life. If you have experienced real cafe culture first hand, you know what I am talking about. The can be a home away from home.

    One of the things that I love about Watertown is its diverse population. One can hear many languages spoken here. Many cultures come together. Many food traditions can be sampled. Is that not cosmopolitan on a small scale? What we need more of is the expression of the musical traditions of all these cultures.

    We in Watertown have many resources that people like Fred overlook, but can add greatly to quality of life. This is why people like me choose to move here from somewhere else. Sorry if I am getting tiring Fred, but we have many resources here that, while often under appreciated and under utilized, could be maximized to enhance a wonderful urban village.

  3. To save space in my initial message I only mentioned two of those powerful practices that promote wellbeing, but the research I surveyed revealed over a half-dozen more things we can do (and other cities are already doing) to make city life less stressful. It doesn’t strike me as Utopian necessarily to want to spare a lot of people the mental and physical illnesses brought on by stress from such things as chronic bombardment by industrial noise, inability to walk to a place with a few trees and flowers where you know other neighbors will likely appear (relieving isolation and starvation for nature all at once), having trails to walk and ride on (and meet neighbors) nearby, and seeing the things in neighborhood shopping areas that delight many of us. These might include flower boxes and vases outside cafe and shop entrances (seen in diverse places from Paris to Marblehead), seating areas that offer shade or sun as needed, small tables and chairs that can be moved into different groupings, benches with a back, a small fountain–fountains lift almost anyone’s mood and kids love them–storefronts with charming entrances and windows (seen in Woodstock, VT, Damariscotta, Maine, Portsmouth, NH, Paris, and many other towns small and large). People travel to find these things that make them happy, so why not have them right here if we want them? The 600-plus people who wanted Coolidge Square to be different do care about such things.

    Being able to walk to such places and leave cars at home is something many people crave, and the de-stressing from being able to that throughout a city or metropolitan area can likely calm tempers, and calm traffic and now-stressed drivers when they do have to get in their cars. Boston was listed recently as the fifth rudest city to drive in in the country. We’re not particularly calm here, for the most part, nor are many other American cities right now, and if you do want to be calm it’s hard to do amid all the stress, road rage, incredibly loud music in increasing numbers of shops and restaurants, so loud many people tell me they never go in those places (that’s sad because they lose sense of community and the places lose customers).

    Yet most of these things don’t have to cost that much and when they do cost some money will likely pay for themselves in better health, better mood, again reduced crime, and fewer traffic accidents. I didn’t make these wellbeing principles up–I got them straight from a number of longtime researchers on health, happiness, and longevity throughout the world. I don’t think the places where people live this way consider themselves Utopian, they just think this is a good way to live, and their health, mood, and long lives seem to prove it. For myself, it’s hard to live without hope of that kind of life, for me and for the many others who want it rather than the stress-filled status-quo. It may be that “it is what it is,” but I think what it is can be much, much better than it is.

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