Last week Cameron unveiled his plans to create a Happiness Index (Happinex?!) which will measure environmental and psychological wellbeing alongside GDP measuring economic health. The Happinex will include measurables and data which will be collected and analysed at various spatial levels from post code to whole cities but what will it tell us about the experience of a place compared to another? What makes a happy place?
On the other hand unhappy places (with high crime, unemployment, poor housing etc) continue to persist despite continual investment in them and all places will be made less happy by cuts to investment and services. What happens to the people that live in them and the future of those places? We need an approach to managing the negative impacts of these cuts that considers the human vulnerability of places to change. This has to happen at a local level or the Happiness Index could lead to vulnerable places being even further disadvantaged on the basis of their position in the index.
All places and areas despite their socio-economic standing will experience a material decline in their quality of life and well-being as a result of government cuts, but places that are already struggling face grim prospects. It is possible that the HI could make it even harder for those areas that are struggling to attract investment and support in the future. Therefore we need a means of guaging the level of vulnerability of places to cuts and how we can manage the negative impacts of this.
The resource invested in making places happy is minor compared to the money needed to intervene in unhappy places: to turn them around, change perception of them, and bring inward investment. The term “Feral Places” (Dr Tim Williams) has been coined to describe a place where, despite countless levels of investment and intervention it remains a problem place (high crime, unemployment, reliance on benefits, poor quality housing.) Is that because intervention has failed to tackle the “happiness” factors?
Herein lies the problem: government, developers and investors are NOT place-makers – they put kit in space. Places are made by people and their varying and uniquely local attachments to place; people are profoundly affected by change happening in their place – i.e. closure of employment centres, rise in house prices etc, which in itself makes development and regeneration process not just a physical one but actually more of a psychological process.
As we have said in other posts, we believe place is the spatial "self" and like the human self, places are vulnerable to change and negative impacts. This manifests in symptoms of decline, abuse and neglect. If places are to remain or even become happy in a climate of austerity and cuts then we must look at places as assets that require the same support, help and analysis that people need.
Places need to be examined in a way that tells us how it has got to where it has, what has gone wrong, what makes it hard to move on, what it is for, where it is going and what it needs to grow – psychotherapy for places.
Over the coming months we will be developing the idea of "Psychotherapy of Places" into a tool for helping places and communities understand, cope and respond to the coming cuts and remain resilient. As well as speaking to people living in vulnerable places we will also meet emotional geographers, psychogeographers, psychotherapists, artists, psychoanalysts, writers and filmakers, community workers and young people to understand what it means to experience and identify happy and unhappy places.
We want to look at cities and places in a completely different way - as living personalities that can be developed, grown and strengthened and appreciated for what they are - warts and all - in the face of change and challenge and able to fight back!
Let's have some urban love!