About Livability, Happiness, And Why We Live Where We Live

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About Livability, Happiness, And Why We Live Where We Live

Category:City Explorer,Livable Cities,Petra Hurtado Tags : 

Author: Petra Hurtado

For many years, cities such as Vienna, Melbourne, Munich, and Vancouver have been within the top 10 of several international rankings on the most livable cities on Earth (Mercer Quality of Living Survey, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s World’s Most Liveable Cities). Having been to most of the top 10 cities of these rankings myself, I can totally see why they are that high up on the list. All of them are what I personally would define as livable: They are walkable and have good public transportation (I don’t own a car, so that’s important to me); housing is affordable; and they offer pretty much everything I need in my leisure time (cultural events such as opera and concerts, green spaces for outdoor activities, and beautiful urban design that makes strolling around enjoyable).


Vancouver, Canada © Petra Hurtado

Vancouver, Canada © Petra Hurtado


However, there are other cities such as Madrid, Chicago, or Paris that I consider just as livable as Vienna, Munich, or Vancouver, but they rank somewhere between 37 and 52. Obviously, there are certain livability criteria that are more important to me than others. It makes me raise the question: What does livability mean for the majority of people on this planet? Wouldn’t it be the most natural thing to assume that people live in places that are considered most livable for them? Apparently, this is not the case, otherwise, the over eight million people that choose to live in New York City (ranking 44) would be living in Vienna, the highest-ranking city. What is it that makes us want to live in a city? What is everyone’s personal definition of livability and does it have an influence on the decision on where we live at all?

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The American psychologist Daniel Gilbert says in his book Stumbling on Happiness that “[m]ost of us make at least three important decisions in our lives: where to live, what to do, and with whom to do it”[1].

We spend a lot of time preparing for the “what to do”, going to school and college, trying to find a rewarding job. Some find the perfect “what” through people they know, through friends or family. Some have to work a little harder, going through job applications and interviews. Nowadays, we have websites that make the search for the perfect “what” easier. Just punch in your desired industry, salary, the role you would like to play, and some other criteria and the website will tell you where you can find your perfect “what”.

The selection of the “who” can be very similar. We meet people, we start dating, we fall in love, and at some point we decide to stay together. Like the search for the “what”, the search for the perfect “who” also went digital. Online dating websites make it possible to find your perfect “who” by sitting on your couch at home just checking boxes, swiping left or right, and following the magical algorithm to someone else’s heart.

But what about the “where”? The question that, according to Richard Florida, is the most important one, as it influences what we choose to do and who we are going to meet.[2] Have you ever been sitting in front of your computer, checking boxes on livability criteria, reading city profiles, or evaluating cities that would be the perfect match for you? For most people, the “where” is determined by the selection of the “what” or the “who”.


Madrid, Spain © Petra Hurtado

Madrid, Spain © Petra Hurtado


For instance, when I was 18 years old, I moved to Vienna, because that was the only city in Austria (the country I grew up in) where I could study urban planning (my desired “what”). When I moved to Madrid, Spain for a student exchange program a couple of years later, the reason that made me pick Madrid was because I wanted to go to a place where I could improve my Spanish. At that point, I had never been to Madrid before and I had no idea what I would get myself into, but I knew it would help me to accomplish my “what”. I would get used to the “where”. The same was the case when I moved to Chicago in 2011. I had never been there before, but I had the opportunity to collaborate with the University of Illinois at Chicago on my research on sustainable urban planning for my PhD. All those decisions were based on the “what”. In all three cases I knew I wanted to go somewhere else, because the place I was in didn’t offer what I was looking for. But I didn’t ask the question of “where do I want to go?” and adjusted everything else; I asked the question “what do I want to do?” and the “where” was just a result of that decision.

There are very few people that decide to move to a place, just because they think it will offer the best quality of living for them, without having a plan on what to do there or at least knowing someone there. Looking at my friends and family in Europe, the “where” is in most cases a result of where they grew up or where they went to college. Europeans don’t move as much as Americans do. Americans are a mobile society. People in the U.S. are constantly moving to be closer to better jobs and schools. Europeans are more attached to the places they grew up in and the people they grew up with.[3] Obviously, in Europe every country speaks a different language, and moving involves much more than just packing boxes and starting a new job somewhere else. Either way, it becomes obvious that the “where” is hardly ever actively selected, but rather a result of the “what” and the “who”. It seems that people in general don’t put as much effort into the thought of where they want to be than what they want to do or with whom they want to be.

This makes me think, what if we started with the “where” and took it from there? What if we put as much effort into the search for the perfect place as we do for the search for the perfect job and the love of our lives? What if there were “dating websites” for cities that help us find the city that matches the best? What would be the criteria that would make a city the perfect place to live for you? Would we select our city according to the criteria that is being used for livability rankings? Would we ask for the quality of public infrastructure? For available healthcare systems? For the quality of schools and the frequency of natural disasters?

In an interview with Richard Florida, Melody Warnick, author of the book This is where you belong, says: “[…] almost two-thirds of Millennials want to pick their city first, then find a job there, rather than go wherever a job takes them.” If this is true, I wonder what this will mean for cities in the future. Will people pick their cities according to Mercer? Will cities have to define themselves differently? Will Vienna be the largest city in the world, because it meets all the livability criteria?

According to Gilbert “[p]eople want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically meant to be means to that end.” Depending on where we are in our lives, the definition of personal happiness varies and so do our personal livability criteria. If you are young, single, and career driven, New York with its many job opportunities and its wide range of cultural events might be the city that makes you happy. Later in life, if you decide to have a family, you might start looking for a place that is more affordable, safer, and offers a better healthcare system.


Paris, France © Petra Hurtado

Paris, France © Petra Hurtado

Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogota, brings it to the point: “After I finished college, I was an extremely poor student in Paris. I lived in a room where I had to share the toilet with 20 other rooms. We did not have a shower. But I never felt poor. I felt extremely happy and thankful, because I had Paris. I had a fantastic city that gave me cultural activities, gave me public transport, gave me beauty, gave me possibilities to walk, gave me joy, gave me an education.” Everyone has their personal criteria for happiness. The question is, if the “where” can be the determining factor to achieve it. According to Peñalosa it can and should. Therefore, the main objective of the urban development plan of the City of Bogota is happiness. Peñalosa doesn’t want to pursue the American Dream of an economically thriving city; for him, the most important goal is that the people who live in Bogota can find their personal happiness.[4]

Melody Warnick, on the other hand, says that “cities don’t make us happy. We make ourselves happy in our cities. The really good news is that place attachment doesn’t care if you live in the objectively best city on the planet.”

I ended up loving all three cities I have lived in, Vienna, Madrid, and Chicago, even though my decision to move there was solely based on the ”what” and not the perfect “where” that would make me happy. Thinking back though, I don’t know if it was the cities themselves that made me happy or if it was the circumstances of my life then. It might have been a combination of both.

However, it would be an interesting experiment to see where people would choose to live if they selected their city according to what makes them happy, independent from the “what” and the “who”. Maybe, in the end, we would all stay where we are. We may realize that there is another city out there that might be a better match for us, but ultimately, our current “what” and “who” are the main factors that make us happy and are more important than the perfect “where”.


[1] Gilbert, D. (2007): Stumbling on Happiness.

[2] Florida, R. (2009): Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life.

[3] Stieninger, P. (2013): Changing Human Behavior towards Energy Saving through Urban Planning: Creation of a new Planning Approach. Lessons learned from Europe and North America.

[4] Montgomery, C. (2013): Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.