Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Urban Planning; One Road to Happiness

I read once in one of Radwa Ashour’s novels; the main character’s son wanted to leave architecture school and study law instead because he thought his country then needed more lawyers than it needed houses. You can see Egypt now and realize it might be the same case here.
But then I realized people are so unfortunate now that they do need a good, comfortable and healthy built environment that eventually and by time would affect their rate of happiness. And it is not a matter of welfare but rather a necessity.
Since beginning of time houses just grew up randomly, tribes where formed and different forms of housing and services lined up together to shape some sort of an urban form which was perfectly fine considering a small group of people.
But with an increasing growth rate, a random set of houses became a problem and a dysfunction rather than an environment that satisfy its residents’ needs.

Take for example the case of El-Mohagreen residents in El-Marg District
on one hand there is the one floor houses; People have small corridors between their houses, those which create a strong social bond between its residents, one that can never be achieved in a multi-store housing. They have re-used different materials to build this place; old doors, windows, ceilings of wooden plates and old building materials.
They have stairs that makes the houses slightly elevated from the street level, courts in some cases, windows that are craved in the wall which is one of the methods to decrease direct sun rays and give them more privacy, also windows are set at a higher level for the same purpose of privacy.
For shading they have wooden plates above some corridors, and decorations that serve as both shading and decorating materials. They paint their walls with traditional writings and drawings.
They have natural vegetation and various traditional means of cooling.
After all this effort, the government would call the place an UNSAFE Area and demand its removal.
But if you look at it the right way, beside the need of some infrastructure repairs and a little monitoring, this place has what it needs to be called a well-made sustainable built environment, and people managed to build and plan it just fine without any outside aid or planning strategies of any source.

On the other hand, what the government would consider a safe environment is the tall hideous buildings of 7 or more floors, what I usually call the concrete blocks. Many and many tall buildings aligned in grids.  

Here we have two cases, one in which people planned and built their own environment with no other intention than to live in and enjoy, and would be the perfect living environment with little adjustments.
The other case is where plots are divided and distributed among people, People who decided to change this environment into a source of income; buy a land, build a tower, sell its apartments and there you have a good trade, in this second case the result is what we have now, an unbearable mess that is well organized.

The increasing growth rates required an urban planner intervention – or at least that is what people thought they needed – a one that sees the situation in a larger scale.
Over time the job specifications increased and an urban planner changed from a server to the community to a server of the “greater good” AKA the government. And then appeared the conflict of interests and the ugliness that we see now.
How does this all fit in the happiness context?
A government can simply control the rate of happiness of its citizens with controlling the built environment and since the built environment no longer lies in the hands of the people living in it, but rather in the hands of traders and well, the greater good in this case will always be money, especially in a third world country.
Government seeks money, awful planning. People seeks money, awful buildings. No regulations, messed up built environment.
The question here is, how can a good environment not only make you healthier but also happier?


Have you ever thought that a well-planned pedestrian route can make you happier?
An interesting video called Embracing walkability pointed out that increasing the number of people walking has its effect on reducing CO2 emissions, various health benefits and has its social and recreational value whereas the only elements needed to make a street walkable is to be useful, safe, comfortable and Interesting.
An intriguing experience that combine all of this would be the beautiful High Line “open” Park in Manhattan, New York. The story of the railroad that went abandoned and was recreated to be a park that penetrates through the borough. A simple way to toggle through High Line park is by using google street view using the following link. https://goo.gl/maps/jz2rTCfqWS32
Now, to realize how a good pedestrian or walkable street can affect your rate of happiness, try to compare this to your last walking experience using the four elements mentioned above.
What is interesting is, by asking people in Cairo about the places where they saw someone or a group of people laughing from the bottom of their heart, none of them mentioned a street. To think about it, how many people do you see every day laughing or seem alive just by walking down Cairo’s streets?
On the contrary, by asking Egyptians living abroad for example in Canada or Italy, they say that people would seem happy or relaxed just walking down a street, some might be casually dancing or singing in a square.
Features like this shows how a well-planned streets and spaces can make your life happier, or at least less worried about which car is going to hit you next.


According to the future cities laboratory, Two Swiss economists related the life satisfaction question from the World Happiness Report directly to the time people commute to work. They found that a person with a one hour commute must earn 40% more money to be satisfied with his life as someone who walks to office.
As people spent more time on longer commutes, it also changes the shape and quality of their social networks. Researchers found that long commutes created a disperse effect on people's social networks. The longer they commute, the further apart tended their friends to live. In consequence, a long-distance commuter's friends are less likely to know each other, which makes it more difficult to enjoy each others company.

Comparing this to the amount of time needed to commute inside Cairo, where most of the working areas are in downtown and nearly no one lives close to their working place, with a minimum of 1 hour journey from or to work. You’re simply wasting from 3 to 4 hours a day stuck in traffic when you could have been socializing.

With the minimum wages in Egypt, most people can’t be satisfied with the current situation. Ergo one of the main reasons for the decrease in the rate of happiness.

The laboratory added that; There is also a direct relationship between traffic and street life, studies have showed that residents of the street with only light traffic reported having a tight contact network with neighbors on both sides of the street. People socialized on their front steps, and children played on the sidewalks. The streets with more traffic however, saw dramatic drops in both social activity and friendship.

This is probably why you’d feel a little happier walking down one of Cairo’s old neighborhoods where cars rarely move in them with their narrow streets and short buildings, you had probably noticed tight connections, people sitting in front of their houses, men in cafes, children playing in the streets. You will even get noticed as the stranger walking in the neighborhood. 

Public Spaces

I have discussed in my last blog post, what makes a public space enjoyable. And it was summarized in 10 simple points.
Neutral Ground – Accessibility by different levels of a community - A home away from home – Easy entry – Performers – Distractions – Power of food and drink – Regular transactions - Capability of being adapted – Variety of activities.
When I asked people about the places where they saw someone laughing from their heart, most of them referred to an experience that they had with a group of friends or family, or in open spaces in their colleges, parks. As much as I believe that happiness is related to beautiful moments and the people you’re with but a beautifully built environment can create more comfort and happiness than imagined.

Walls and Barriers

While some organizing regulations can make a citizen’s life easier, walls and barriers would make it hell.
Have you ever thought about the number of walls and barriers that you come across in your everyday life? Here are a few that you walk by on a normal day.

The thing is, walls and barriers are created in a way that would make you feel contained or imprisoned. So, the only thing you are probably thinking about in a place with walls is not the experience you’re having but rather the ugly solid concrete wall standing in your way. Or when you’re crossing a road and there is this huge fence that makes you climb stairs or go down a tunnel to pass the road, the only thing you’d be thinking about is the trouble you’re going to get through just to pass by to the other side of the road.
They say walls and fences are for the best interest, for your protection on one side and to organize and keep everything in the right place on the other side.
We’d assumed that people will not follow regulations if they were set on them, that they need walls to be organized, keeping criminals in jails and students in school. But then why are there walls around Universities? Public parks? Public buildings? The green areas between roads? Green areas in squares? Gated Communities? Amusement Parks?
An endless number of barriers that you come across in a normal day activity, walls that are increasing and getting higher and more solid by day.


Outdoor Thermal Comfort

In Egypt, summer covers most of the year with an increasing rate in the temperature over the past few years. so if we assumed that we worked on all the last aspects but still have a high temperature and humidity most of the year, we will not have the amount of comfort we aspire.

According to Estefania Tapias a researcher at ETH Zurich; Over the past few decades, making outdoor spaces attractive to people, and ultimately used by them, has been increasingly recognized as a goal in urban planning and design. Among many factors that determine the quality of outdoor spaces...Pedestrians are directly exposed to their immediate environment in terms of variations of air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, and solar radiation. 
These elements can be manipulated using the built environment, in many ways in which an urban designer or planner forget to think about in the middle of all the regulations and demands that serve only the cause saving of money.

“As an architect, If I have the power and means to make people comfortable, god will not forgive me if I raised the temperature inside the house to more than 17 degree Celsius on purpose.”
- Hassan Fathy

The same with urban planning or design; an urban planner has taken on his burden the responsibility of giving people the environment that satisfy their needs, ergo any plans that decrease people's rate of happiness should not be forgiven.

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