We hope the year ahead will be very different from the difficult and frustrating experience of the last three. The pandemic is finally receding, and the university, along with society, is waking up to a new reality with many challenges but also some tangible new possibilities.
This summer I was able to travel again. I made a point of enjoying each place I visited by staying a little longer. This allowed me to see, and more importantly to feel, how cities are shacking off the pandemic blues, becoming lively, forward looking, and exciting again. What I felt everywhere was an immense thirst for people to come together in public spaces, enjoy each other’s company, and have fun. The cities that do this well had an especially vibrant and happy buzz, a collective feeling that famous urbanist Christopher Alexander once described as “wholeness”: I started describing these trips as my “Summer ’22 Happy Cities Tour”.
The happy cities I visited – Trieste, Singapore, Malacca, Lisbon, Utrecht, New York City – were very different in most respects, but had a number of things in common. They all had great public spaces that promoted social interaction in inexpensive and pleasant ways: coffee, a drink, music, art. As a result, the most magical and most important function of cities flourishes, encouraging improbable human contacts and interactions involving people of all kinds, young and old, rich and poor, in a number of interweaving accents and languages. Most of these cities had made themselves more pedestrian — especially in Europe and Asia — had reclaimed their waterfronts, and had created safer biking infrastructure, separating pedestrians and bikers from cars and buses. This makes cities quieter and safer, full of people and small businesses, and is especially attractive to younger populations. It was interesting to contrast the mature and systemic biking infrastructure in the Netherlands, where more than half of people bike, to the patchy (and still dangerous) systems in New York City and Chicago. Above all, happy cities were safe, accessible, and relatively cheap, at least in the sense that anyone can enjoy their spaces and civic life without being rich; housing was also diverse and relatively affordable. All such cities, when COVID came, responded remarkably well, with a strong sense of civic behavior, cooperation, and sympathy.
When we imagine better futures for our cities, we tend to fall back on paradigms that seem fundamentally new, infrastructure-heavy, and out of the imagination of the few. But the real success of any city is in its public life, its ability to endure and reinvent itself in the face of existential challenges, and above all, in the ability to summon human creativity and cooperation from diverse populations for the collective good.
Our work in urban science can tell you why, but happy cities can show you how! The lesson here is that happy cities are not accidents, they are collectively constructed, and such construction takes a long time.
This academic year is packed with new projects, events, lectures, new people, and emerging themes, which I invite you to learn more about and participate in. We have adopted the international designation of October as a month of focus on urbanization. During Urban October, we and our partners will host activities such as a talk by Chicago’s Tik Tok historian, a bike tour of the South Side, an event on the ethics of artificial intelligence, an artist talk at the Smart Museum, and an urban hike along the Great Chicago Fire trail. We are also exploring a number of important emerging themes in our seminars, which you can attend in person (with lunch!) via Zoom, or later on our YouTube channel. This year, we will explore the theme of human cognition and human development in urban environments, as well as the evolution of infrastructure for happy cities, including biking and pedestrian systems. We are launching a visitor’s program, and if you are an early career researcher, please consider our Institute Postdoctoral Program. If you are a student interested in sustainable development and climate change in cities, consider our graduate Certificate in Urban Science and Sustainable Development, and our Environmental Frontiers program. We’re also excited to be part of a a new Department of Energy-funded center with Argonne National Laboratories, Chicago State University, and other partners, to help communities build resilience to future effects of climate change in the Chicago region. You can find this and much more via our web site and social media channels.
Best wishes of a fruitful new academic year 2022-23,
Director, Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation
Professor of Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago