Ingredients for a happy city

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 13, 2020 - July 19, 2020.
Copenhagen street scene ...  In Europe and the US, people are taking cars out of the cities to make these locations ‘walkable’ and ‘bikeable’

Copenhagen street scene ... In Europe and the US, people are taking cars out of the cities to make these locations ‘walkable’ and ‘bikeable’

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Building a happy city and making people content is a long-term journey of continuous improvement and involves public-private partnership. It is also about taking care of the future generation, said International Real Estate Federation (Fiabci) board member Mahmoud Hesham El Burai.

Mahmoud, who is also senior adviser to the Dubai government,  was a panellist for a webinar titled “The new normal in the world’s post-Covid-19: The notion of a happy city”, together with Jari Sinkari, ambassador and plenipotentiary of the Republic of Finland to Indonesia, East Timor and Asean, and Terence Seah, director and head of Benoy Singapore Studio. It was organised by Fiabci Indonesia and Universitas Tarumanagara’s (UNTAR) Urban Planning and Real Estate Programme and held on June 3.

“Happiness should be looked at as a system that includes the elements of economy, social, environment and health. We cannot achieve happiness if we leave one element out,” said Mahmoud.

To ensure that the people living in a city are happy, he said, we should start with Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which states that the most basic human need is physiological. “We cannot have happy people if their basic needs are not met. So, we start with the basic needs of shelter, food and water,” he explained.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, his main worries are the global economic condition and the skyrocketing unemployment rate.

“This tells us that we are fragile and not resilient. In just more than a month, millions of jobs were lost and people could not afford the basic needs,” he said.

“The challenge now is the duration of the ­economic problem. Once we start looking at the losses of jobs and others, we will recognise that this pandemic will take us back to the basics, where we will have to fix a lot of simple issues like unemployment.”

Another aspect that has been drawing more attention recently is healthcare, which is also linked to happiness.

“When people look at investing in a country, they put more consideration in the healthcare system ­rather than the returns. They look at how well the government and the city’s healthcare system managed the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Mahmoud.

He noted that the cities and countries that would emerge stronger from the pandemic are the ones that have a good investment in healthcare systems.


Establishing trust

Finland is seen as a happy nation. It has been quite successful in curbing the spread of Covid-19 and is one of the few countries that are in the process of reopening their economies.

This has been made possible because of the trust the citizens have in each other and towards the government, ambassador Sinkari said.

“We are a stable country and corruption is low. About 85% of the citizens feel that they can trust their fellow citizens.” Moreover, the citizens have been very supportive of the government’s action.

He said that when the pandemic situation became clear in Finland, the government’s reaction to it was to restrict movement.

“When you trust your organisations, institutions and your fellow citizens, you will then accept the things that are restricting your life. It does not necessarily make you happy in the short term, but you understand that it is for the overall happiness of the nation, to save lives and avoid overwhelming the healthcare system,” he explained.

So, it is the underlying qualities behind the happiness that helped the Finnish government make drastic decisions, he said.


The outdoors and mobility

Besides trust, Sinkari said, the Finnish seek solace in nature. There are plenty of green, open spaces in Finland for people to go for a walk and find relief from the stress of being secluded in their own homes.

Benoy’s Seah said the pandemic has made people relook at the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces.

“In Southeast Asia, people are addicted to air-conditioned places because they are more comfortable, and it is viewed as a normal situation. But after being stuck inside the home for an extended period of time, it made us rethink the relationship between the indoors and outdoors,” he said.

One crucial factor when it comes to the outdoors is how people get around.  According to Mahmoud, a lot of research on the connection between happiness and the mode of transport has been conducted.

“Cycling makes people happiest, followed by driving and ending with taking public transport,” he noted.

There is a new movement calling for the reclaiming of the streets. In Europe and the US, people are taking cars out of the cities to make these locations “walkable” and “bikeable”.

Many European cities have decided to return the streets permanently to the people to walk and cycle, he said. This will make the cities healthier and more sustainable.


‘De-densify’ cities

The discussion on mode of transport raises the question of a sprawling or dense city, said Mahmoud. “Are we going to have a denser city or are we going to sprawl if we use cars more?”

In China, more people are using private cars than public transport post-Covid-19 and it has sparked a debate on “de-densifying” cities.

“Should the government build dense cities with huge public infrastructure and invest in public transport or allow their cities to grow horizontally, spread out, sprawl, with less investment in public transport because people trust the transport system and government less?” he asked.

Seah concurred that there has been a lot of debate on whether cities will be relevant again because it is all about density.

“The good answer is, it will be relevant because this kind of public health crisis is not the first,” he said.

Cities would be no less dense, he added, but there would be a redistribution of density and the way people understand the usage of space.

Thus, there is a possibility for centralised locations to become decentralised. “Instead of one location, there will be many locations,” he said.

In the context of Singapore, he explained that traditional centres such as the CBD would extend into the residential areas.

“It is a good thing because the otherwise normal residential areas will become more mixed and, hopefully, this will help in increasing other forms of mobility options such as walking, which in turn also helps the environment because you don’t have to drive so much,” he said.

Seah added, however, that there is a tendency for this idea to backfire, but people will find ways to adjust and strike a balance.



According to Sinkari, the pandemic crystallises what a happy city development needs. “There is the importance of open, safe and green areas for citizens as well as agile and easy-to-use digital services that bridge gaps, provide up-to-date information and support citizens in their daily lives.”

The enablers of a good and happy life in the new norm include food delivery, online doctor consultations and e-learning, he said.

Mahmoud said the pandemic has made people rethink the future of cars, public spaces, density of cities, green buildings, healthy communities and also property technology (proptech). Technology pushes cities to be happier, sustainable, safe, resilient and affordable.

Seah concurred: “The pivot into technological advancement is very real.”

There are two ways to look at it, he said. “The downside is that, with every invention created by humans, equally creative ways have to be thought of to protect ourselves so that we don’t end up having sabotages in our systems.”

On the positive side, technology will allow governments to predict and further optimise the precious resources available on this planet. “This is so that we are more intelligent and responsible in using them and finding ways to share them,” said Seah.