Tag Archives: Mayor

Measuring happiness comes close to home

Flickr photo by seq

We’ve reported earlier on the UK government’s recent decision to measure the happiness of its citizens.  The latest government to do so is neighboring Somerville, MA.  Somerville, which went by the nickname of “Slummerville” in the 1980s for cheap and affordable 3-decker housing and the highest residential concentration of any community in New England, has recently become more hip and gentrified thanks to the revitalization of places like Inman Square and Davis Square.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone is a recent graduate of the mid-career program Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and a visionary who has worked with HKS on many other local government measurement projects (SomerStat). The NY Times quotes Curtatone as saying that the project was a “no-brainer” and he noted that “cities keep careful track of their finances, but a bond rating doesn’t tell us how people feel or why they want to raise a family here or relocate a business here.”

The city is collaborating with happiness expert Dan Gilbert at Harvard and ultimately hopes to use these data to see how things like the extension of the subway green line affect happiness or how Somerville’s happiness compares with neighboring towns.

The voluntary survey asks such questions like:

  • How happy do you feel right now? (1-10 scale)How satisfied are you with your life in general? (1-10 scale)
    In general, how similar are you to other people you know? (1-10 scale)
    When making decisions, are you more likely to seek advice or decide for yourself? (1-10 scale)
  • Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live? (1-10 scale)

The survey also asks residents to rate Somerville’s “beauty or physical setting” [likely fairly low for anyone who has spent time in Somerville], “availability of affordable housing”, quality of local public schools, and effectiveness of local police.

Researchers hope to correlate ratings of well-being, demographics, satisfaction with Somerville amenities, and proximity to various parts of Somerville to unpack what makes residents more or less satisfied.

As the NY Times observes: “Monitoring the citizenry’s happiness has been advocated by prominent psychologists and economists, but not without debate over how to do it and whether happiness is even the right thing for politicians to be promoting. The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that is not the same as reporting blissful feelings on a questionnaire. ”

See “How Happy Are You? A Census Wants to Know” (NY Times, 4/30/11 by John Tierney)

See Somerville’s voluntary “Wellbeing and Community Survey

See “Somerville, Mass., aims to boost happiness. Can it?” (CS Monitor, 4/4/11 by Mary Helen Miller)

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Shrinking Detroit while retaining its social capital

Flickr photo by buckshot.jones

Detroit faces a painful decision.  Its population has crumbled over the last decade, shedding 25% of its residents (or 235,000 people).  What was once the fourth largest city in America in 1920 and which had nearly 2 million residents in 1950, now has only 713,777 residents.  As the NY Times observes, “Detroit is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.”

The challenge is that people, as one might expect, are not neatly leaving from one or two neighborhoods, instead leaving vacant lots scattered throughout a 139 square mile city.  This complicates government’s ability to police, educate, collect trash, etc. all with lower tax revenue.  (Vacancy rates are obviously highest in general in the downtown area and in the east side, areas generally inhabited by poorer and less educated residents.)

The Mayor is trying to figure out how to demolish 10,000 structures, given that there is a 20% vacancy rate in housing across the city.

The challenges are two-fold: 1) the city lacks any power of eminent domain to force these people to leave but the city plans to focus its investments on neighborhoods it considers more vibrant and healthy; and 2) the city doesn’t seem to focus on what the “social capital” consequences will be of all these people moving.  In fact, they seem to be measuring almost everything except for that, tracking “population densities, foreclosed homes, disease, parks, roads, water lines, sewer lines, bus routes, publicly owned lands, and on and on.”  The city may also cut back services to these less “viable” neighborhoods.

We should bear in mind the horrible lessons of slum clearing in the 1950s where “slum” neighborhoods like Boston’s West End were razed to build new housing.  Herbert Gans in his book Urban Villagers details the high social cost of this ill-conceived experiment as thousands of social ties and the vibrant life of this community was extinguished.  It seems like Detroit Mayor Dave Bing would be wise to hire some ethnographers or social networks students to map out people’s social networks and identify sociometric clusters of individuals that could be encouraged to move together; this would maximize the happiness and sense of engagement of those who moved and minimize the social costs from dislocated friendships.

Of course, even if Mayor Bing does this, one overarching question of the Detroit plan is whether poor residents will largely be asked to move to more affluent neighborhoods, and if so, how they will be able to afford this, and what the city will do to try to build more bridging social capital between the existing residents and the new in-movers.

See “The Odd Challenge for Detroit Planners” (NY Times, 4/5/11)

See maps of where demolitions are proposed: (NY Times graphic, 4/5/11)