Unhappy city

Published February 5, 2019
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.

AS Aristotle wrote, happiness is “the ultimate purpose of human existence.” The surroundings in which one lives can help either to achieve or defeat that purpose.

Imagine a child raised with severely restricted mobility (ie, only allowed to move within their house), rare access to family members, no access to clean air or water, no opportunities to learn or exercise, and no one to listen to their cries for help. Can such a child grow into an industrious adult and achieve happiness? Can citizens experience happiness in a city with similar restrictions?

Although the quality of state institutions leaves a lot to be desired, I am concerned with how Lahore’s urban infrastructure and overall environment lead to unhappiness. As a resident, I find that happiness is a distant dream here because of limited mobility, urban sprawl, a contaminated natural environment, closed neighbourhoods and an unfriendly setting for both learning and sports.

According to economist John Helliwell, a lack of mobility erodes one’s sense of belonging, thereby decreasing overall happiness. The lack of freedom to choose between diverse mobility options (car, public transport, bicycle, walking or any combination thereof) induces stress. I, for one, cannot commute either on a bicycle or via a combination of walking and public transport, given the scarcity of options. Lahore incentivises only the use of cars, and this car-led development leads to pollution, stress and general unhappiness, as confirmed by research and apparent to all.

Lahore’s environment is fraying its social fabric.

The absence of safe walking options is particularly distressing. Psychologist Robert Thayer found that walking makes people more energetic and happier. Walking in our neighbourhoods, however, is unsafe, especially for children, women, the elderly and people with disabilities. Sidewalks are usually not usable or missing altogether, and air and noise pollution would make any walk unpleasant. I can walk in a park, but the park that I go to is a 40-minute drive away.

Our love for urban sprawl has led to unaffordable housing, more cars, and longer commutes. Let’s talk about commuting. Commutes make us unhappy, as confirmed in a study by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. The stressful commutes one has to endure in Lahore sometimes causes cancellation of important visits. These commutes also allow us less time with loved ones. Happiness is tied to a strong social fabric. Unfortunately, urban sprawl threatens this very fabric.

Further, had my city witnessed more prudent planning, it would not have such a polluted environment. In the last few months, per the Air Quality Index, it has ranked among the worst cities in the world. Breathing such air can lead to coughs, headaches and other short- as well as long-term health problems. Moreover, the poor quality of drinking water is no secret. The rich can buy air purifiers and bottled water, but these remain out of reach for the poor. Our health and climate change ministers are active on social media, but surprisingly, Lahore’s worsening environment does not concern them.

Our neighbourhoods are also becoming closed to people from all walks of life. For example, hawkers used to bring valuables not readily available nearby — thereby increasing convenience, reducing car trips and even providing opportunities for quick and small neighbourhood huddles. Opportunities where people from all walks of life can come together are diminishing. This makes one wonder whether this diminishing contact could widen the divide among different social classes.

Another source of happiness is a conducive environment for learning, sports and recreation for all citizens. Research suggests that learning can make individuals economically well-off, and usually happier. In addition to schools, libraries provide avenues for learning, but Lahore’s neighbourhoods have few libraries. It is ironic that politicians can boast about a plethora of major infrastructure works, but cannot name a few great libraries, open to all, in Pakistan’s second-largest city.

As for sports, according to a former hockey Olympian, there are just two decent hockey clubs in Lahore where he would recommend I take my children to learn the sport. Both these clubs are a one-and-a-half hour round-trip car journey away from my place, forcing me to abandon the idea. Are citizens not deprived of happiness when they cannot engage in activities they enjoy? Is this also not responsible for the decline in our national sport?

Overall, the signal that state sends is dangerous. It communicates that happiness is an unachievable goal, particularly for the poor. Current as well as previous governments have shown a bizarre unresponsiveness and unwillingness to help citizens with their pursuit of happiness. We need happy cities, those that strengthen the social fabric, minimise agony, prioritise health and provide equal opportunities for learning and recreation — for everyone.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.


Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2019



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