‘Urban Life, The Untold Dimension of Happiness’

Urban Life, The Untold Dimension of Happiness, 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

We are indeed aware of spatial forces behind our actions, or for that matter, inactions. No one has ever doubted how doors enable us to move through walls, a possibility that a solid wall robs from us. In fact, we are so intrinsically adapted to architectural manipulations, no one shrinks from how decisive architecture can be, when a window not only guides our gaze but also the rays of sunlight. The list goes on beyond the simplicity of doors and windows. As Lefebvre elaborates in his celebrated The Production of Space, we are impacted by architecture at all levels, “Facades were harmonised to create perspectives,” and “Streets and squares were arranged in concord with the public buildings and palaces of political leaders and institutions.” Which in turn affects us “From family dwellings to monumental edifices, from ‘private’ areas to the territory as a whole.”[1]

The moment you leave your home, you enter into a dialogue with the urban fabric. Have you ever asked yourself how much your moods are influenced by the city? After all, doors and streets do privilege some activities over others[2], but to what extent do spatial features dictate our behaviour, or affect our emotions and moods? Can architecture make us happier? ‘Urban Life, The Untold Dimension of Happiness’, was a workshop that I led as part of the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning supported by The Unviversity of Edinburgh. By employing deep discussions, interactive debate and hands-on activities, the session aimed to change our relationship with the city, in a way that it becomes part of the narrative of happiness in our everyday lives.

To that end, we first verified to what extent our happiness is located in the urban environment and secondly, how much we are aware of the impact the built environment has on our happiness. The 21 participants of the workshop shared their insights into some of the spatial dynamics behind our activities, such as the interplay between nature and urban space, the density of the urban configuration and the skyline in view, the property usage or the extent to which all our senses are engaged with the environment, and so on and so forth. When you imagine a happy place, is it like the Bank area in London where you can walk for at least an hour in the shadow of skyscrapers without a chance for a peek at sun, where a traveller whose business meeting is running late shoves you carelessly; or is it Edinburgh’s Victoria street where you have the skyline in view, and the aroma of fresh baked bread from a close-by café drifting by in the breeze? Accordingly, our moods are influenced by a combination of all these urban factors that participants personally felt strongly about.

Since Shakespeare shared his legendary question, we have come a long way. People are living roughly 45 years longer on average than Shakespeare’s peers. With all the extra time on our hands, demands are high for a better quality of life. Now, it is not simply the matter of being anymore… to be happy, or not to be happy, is the question. Does the answer to that question have a spatial and architectural method to it? Well, trying to get connected to our emotions and navigate their origin in our surroundings, as we did in ‘Urban life, The Untold Dimension of Happiness’ workshop, certainly is a solid first step to being more mindful and a simple exercise that will eventually nudge us to find our happy place in the city. 


[1]Lefebvre, Henri, and Donald Nicholson-Smith.The production of space. (1991):47.

[2]Molotch, Harvey. The space of Lefebvre. (1993): 888.

To follow up these ideas in more detail see#FCL19‪  #UoE_FCL  #FCLUoE  #TheUniversityofEdinburgh

This piece originally appeared on the SGSSS March Newsletter and is reposted with permission. Feel free to check it out here: https://www.sgsss.ac.uk/news/urban-life-the-untold-dimension-of-happiness/

About the Author

Negar Ebrahimi is an architect and a skilled consultant in spatial analysis with a Master of Science focused on Spatial Design: Architecture and Cities from The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Prior to her studies at the Bartlett, she co-founded an architecture firm with a demonstrated history of working in the architecture & planning industry. Negar is completing a PhD in Architecture at the University of Edinburgh. She is passionate about promoting people’s wellbeing through architecture and urban design and her current research interests focus on the correlation between happiness and spatial design. When she isn’t working, you’ll find Negar reading Persian Poetry. That doesn’t tell you much, right? You’ll find more on her LinkedIn pagehttps://www.linkedin.com/in/negar-ebrahimi/

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