What Makes A Happy City?

What Makes A Happy City
Photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

What are the key ingredients in creating a happy? Is it the buildings, the people or perhaps there’s some indefinable secret sauce or magic that creates a liveable and loveable city? In conjunction with the UN International Day of Happiness on 20th March, Think City Managing Director Hamdan Abdul Majeed spoke to BFM89.9 about his vision for the development of happiness in Malaysia’s cities, and the crucial role that a city’s inhabitants have to play in defining the future development of their urban environments. 

This is an edited version of that audio interview. An audio embed of the interview can be found at the bottom of this page.

Sim Wie Boon: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on human lives, claiming close to 2.7 million deaths worldwide. Social distancing, nationwide lockdowns, and work from home have become familiar words to all of us. [What have been some of the more startling effects of living in prolonged isolation or working from home during the lockdown]?

Hamdan Abdul Majeed

Hamdan Abdul Majeed: Based on our work, and what we have seen in terms of the research that’s out there, generally people who have been put in what they call restriction face a sense of social disorder. We, as human beings, are social animals. Those worst effected during the crisis have been those who are single families, older people, and we have observed that even younger children have faced a very challenging time. [People] have been kept away from their workplaces, their homes, from their schools and other [public] places. 

[This] has definitely affected people’s mental wellbeing, to some extent, but, more importantly, [it has affected] their social wellbeing. The counterbalance to that, unlike when we had the Spanish flu a hundred years ago, today, we are in a slightly different environment where [the assistance] of technology has allowed us to stay connected. We are able to work from home. We’re able to school from home. We’re able to connect with families from home… to stay in touch with our family and friends. 

With regards to whether people in cities are disproportionately affected [compared to] people living outside of cities, I would probably say that it’s more a case of people who have less space versus people who have more space. People who have more space definitely have more room to move around. Those who have less space are restricted. Those in the Bottom 40 (B40) communities are probably worse effected than those who have more space. There is an inequality in how the pandemic has affected different segments of society. 

Sim Wie Boon: Covid-19 aside, how happy is the city of KL? Covid-19 shows itself in a lot of different factors, but, in general, how would you rank it?

Hamdan Abdul Majeed: The happiness ranking probably uses composite factors that look at different variables. In the case of the World Happiness Report, they look at income-led factors. They look at health, life expectancy factors, social support factors. Freedom, trust and generosity. Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia, generally comes somewhere in the middle, which means we are a nation of people whose glass is half full. Which means there’s much to be [done] in terms of progressing that needle further. But that does not mean that people are not happy, or they’re not doing well. As we progress, and as we develop, the needs and expectations of each person also start shifting. 

Income level expectancy [increases]. We have seen our health and life expectancy improve to some extent. In Malaysia you do have the social support. Education is provided free, maybe there’s issues about quality of education. Healthcare is also provided free, and so on. 

As a city and as a country, we do have some other positive factors. When we compare ourselves with those from the top rank, Finland, Norway [and so on], there’s much we can learn from them in terms of how they have to have been able to build societies that are more equitable, more inclusive; societies that are more sustainable. So those are [some of] the other composite factors.

When you’re going from a low-income to a middle-income [nation], happiness [focuses on] income – making food available. When people move to being middle- and high-income, the factors are probably more qualitative. And that’s where I think Malaysia will need to focus its efforts. Focusing on quality. Making things a lot more tailored.

Sim Wie Boon: What kind of policies and assistance can be done to improve conditions and improve the happiness? 

Hamdan Abdul Majeed: I think there needs to be proactive ownership [in order] to make that journey. It’s not the government, the private sector or communities acting by themselves that can achieve it. That’s number one.

Number two, there are probably a number of things that we can do in terms of improving our quality of life. Basic things like improving access to public spaces. Especially for those who are living in [some of the] restrictive environments that I mentioned earlier. Any introduction of any public space in communities will definitely go a long way.

And then maybe that third thing is having conversations with citizens; engage, open up and be more inviting. To allow for that trust to emerge between citizen and state. And for the state to have the trust of the people, [and] to be able to execute in the interest of the people. I think that’s fundamental in leading the pathway towards happiness.  

Sim Wie Boon: Let’s widen the discussion to other cities. I mean, in terms of promoting happiness and in terms of doing happiness well, are there any other cities that can be highlighted…and why?

Hamdan Abdul Majeed: Generally Malaysian cities are all reflective of what we see in KL. These are all cities that have seen rapid urbanization. Most people either move to the cities from rural areas or they’ve remained there: everything has centred around some form of livelihood and existence. As a country that is still rapidly developing and still on a pathway of development and progress, we are on that trajectory of being half full. Generally, then, we get mixed outcomes when we do an assessment because there are a number of people who have benefited…but there is an equal number of people who are not fully reaping the dividends of the urban progress that the country has achieved. 

There could be slight differences in those smaller, secondary cities because of the fact that the cost of living and urban stress is probably less. But then again, it is commensurate with wage differentials, so it eventually equalizes.

Sim Wie Boon: I want you to talk about this concept of centralization versus decentralization. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a trend of people moving out of the cities…back to their hometowns. Now that things are slowly [getting] better, do you see this trend [continuing] or will you see people [returning] to the cities?

Hamdan Abdul Majeed: [This relates to] the issue of a Doughnut city. Historically, most people have lived in city centres. In more recent periods, people have moved to the suburbs, and commute from the suburbs to the city centre. During the Covid period, what we saw was that people either remained in the suburbs, because offices were closed and downtown areas were shut, or maybe some of them managed to move to their kampungs, but those numbers are much smaller. 

The Doughnut effect was already there pre-crisis and will most likely continue post-crisis. The difference is that during the crisis, the city centres were totally empty because the offices were all shut. The question that arises in the future, as economic activity comes back to normal in a post vaccination environment, is that we anticipate that the work from home or work from anywhere [movement] is going to become the norm.

It means that in the future there is going to be a greater availability space, [and more] vacant spaces in city centres. I think that’s going to be the challenge. How do you repopulate our city centres… and how do you absorb that oversupply of space in the future? It definitely affects the way the city will function.

Cities have [frequently] gone through crises like these. From the Great Plague of London to [other] events that have taken place around the world [over] the last few hundred years. But cities have come back stronger. Cities have reinvented themselves. And you’ll see this [now]. There will probably be a rethinking in terms of the role of cities [as they] respond to the changing world. 

We will have to go back to, is the basics of why a city exists. Cities exist for fundamental reasons. They’re a place where people meet, exchange trade. A place where people are able to connect. People are able to socialize. And I believe those factors will become far more important. I’m very hopeful of a future where our cities become of greater importance as we continue to progress as a nation.

Sim Wie Boon: How important is it for a city to develop organically? Should there be increased intervention from governments, or do you just let it grow by itself? Because some would say that in our attempt to modernize the city, we could remove [its] soul?

Hamdan Abdul Majeed: While you want to have some level of organicness, it’s also important that there’s a plan [but] we don’t want it to be too commercial in nature. A city is a work of art. What will really make a difference in cities is if people can have a sense of ownership and be able to own the direction of change in the cities, and whether the city government creates platforms that allows for citizens to be able to effectively participate [to] shape the direction of the city.

When you have a high level of ownership and a high level of participation, you’re going to be able to achieve a high level of happiness and a high level of engagement. If we have a high level of engagement, then the city is going to do [the] things that people want.

For cities in Malaysia generally, I would probably advocate we step up our level of citizen participation [and for] communities to be more greatly engaged. Even to the extent that we actively partner to bring about the change and transformation, [and determine] how our cities grow and evolve. And that should be a partnership between the citizens, the public sector, the private sector, and whoever else is interested. Cities are organic creations by virtue that they [mimic] biology. Cities can function as a network of cells that eventually become an ecosystem, and [in turn] an ecology.