Disrupting City Building Processes with Joy 

Many of the world’s biggest problems are being pushed down to cities—they are on the frontlines of every crisis from affordable housing to climate change and mental health issues caused by isolation and social division due to digital technology. 

However, most cities struggle to move beyond business-as-usual problem-solving processes that rely on the conventional infrastructure of engineering functionality and efficiency. For example, to solve the growing issue of social division and isolation, some cities propose more transit, a traditional form of infrastructure…as if the problem is based on distance rather than social behaviour and prejudices.  

Like a stale and stogy product category that is vacant of new ideas, city building is ripe for disruption. 

Today’s economy runs on ideas, invention, and the people that create them. Just as cities once declined or prospered based on whether the railroad ran through their town, today’s cities decline or prosper based on their ability to attract creative talent—this is especially true as workers continue to have more freedom to choose where they live. 

To succeed in the future, cities must deliver abundant social interactions and vibrant experiences that result in the joy the human spirit thrives on. Those that don’t will see their influence and prosperity fade. 

“Cities need to invest in infrastructure that nurtures our human spirit if they want to succeed in the future,” says Kalbfleisch (photo courtesy of PxHere).

Historically, cities have been built, and funded, according to a Live, Work, Play model. With an emphasis on Live and Work, there are few funds left over for Play, which is the key ingredient to creating vibrant environments that attract and retain a healthy, creative, and stable workforce, including the critical talent found within its youth.

photo courtesy of PxHere

Joyful cities recognize this and prioritize the impact cities have on how citizens feel, behave, and grow:  

Play + Live + Work = Joy 

  • Play: When you play you feel joy. You are connected to your surroundings and people. Your body and mind are working the way they were meant to work. 
  • Live: When people are around places with infrastructure for play, they are engaged, growing, and truly living. They have energy and they do amazing things. They take pride in what they create and where they live. 
  • Work: Where talent goes, businesses and investment flows. The talent the economy depends on gravitates to vibrant environments. 
A public art installation in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Pat Whelen via Unsplash)

This new formula calls for a fundamental shift in how we choose to organize, prioritize, and fund the places where we live. It requires cities to invest in a new type of infrastructure that nurtures our human spirit—as much as they invest in conventional civil infrastructure. 

Infrastructure for the Human Spirit turns densely populated urban spaces into joyful and creatively collaborative environments in which tolerance and invention rule the day. It can include: 

  • Inclusive community identity building 
  • Redefining the purpose of public space to become engaging places of cultural celebration 
  • Engaging public art that expresses and encourages community storytelling 
  • Breaking down social siloes by providing FREE spaces for the act of joyfully playing with strangers 
  • Well-choreographed urban density with a focus on the diversity of the space and its inhabitants 
  • Public mobility that is viewed as a source of social engagement 
An example of “infrastructure for the human spirit” at a park in San Francisco (photo by Paul Kalbfleisch).

Within this change towards supporting the human spirit, there is an opportunity for mid-sized cities. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have an opportunity to reorient their urban mix to capture a greater portion of the population that might consider moving away from larger metropolitan areas by offering them some of the experiences they thought they might have to give up as they left the big city. 

Joy is so important to the future of cities that it’s practical. Traditional attempts at solving urban challenges, such as climate change and affordable housing, focus on a redistribution of resources, seemingly taking away from the status quo to meet the needs of others or future growth. But change doesn’t have to mean sacrifice—joyful cities are the open door that can lead us out of this quandary. Joy creates much-needed inclusive, vibrant, and prosperous density where all citizens are mentally and physically healthier, more united, and more productive. 

If joy is prioritized as a city building objective, it can become the key to creating a future where the human spirit does more than survive, it thrives.  

Paul Kalbfleisch and Scott Higgins are co-authors of The Joy Experiments  

Paul Kalbfleisch is a consultant, writer, and creative director in the field of city building. He uses narrative strategy and creative design to help cities, architects and real estate developers advance the cultural vibrancy of their projects.  

Scott Higgins is a passionate business and community builder with over 15 years of experience in real estate. As president of HIP Developments Inc., he plays a leadership role in the evolution of the Region of Waterloo. 

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