The City Environment and Happiness Across the Lifespan: The impact of place and government performance

empire-state-buildingMillions of people migrate every year from rural to urban areas.  At a time when most cities around the world are projected to experience exponential growth (United Nations, 2015), more work is needed to understand how the city environment influences happiness and health across the lifespan (see recent journal article here). The population of the world is growing, cities are getting bigger, and the ongoing environmental design challenges are immense.  If we’re going to live in a city for the whole of our life—from childhood to old age—along with millions of other people, we need to think very carefully about how we design our cities.

Past research highlights that older adults want to “age in place”, to live in a location of their choice and retain continuity and control over their daily life. For this to be feasible, we need to consider transportation, recreational and cultural opportunities, and amenities that facilitate physical activity, social interaction, and access to destinations (Lui, Everingham, Warburton, Cuthill, & Bartlett, 2009). With regard to young people, Richard Florida (2005, 2010) has demonstrated that talented, highly educated, and creative young people tend to cluster together in today’s modern cities, and are particularly concerned about the quality of life in their cities.

Recent research on the city environment and residents’ happiness highlights an important distinction between the role of place and performance variables (Goldberg, Leyden and Scotto, 2012; Leyden, Goldberg, and Michelbach, 2011). Place variables include residents’ ratings of how beautiful their city is, how proud they are to live there, and how easy it is to access amenities, green spaces, and public transportation.  Performance variables include residents’ ratings of the city’s basic services such as good schools, healthcare opportunities, safety from crime, and facilities serving the disadvantaged. Whereas place variables are more about enhancing the pleasantness of the city, performance variables are more about providing for basic needs. The individual happiness of city residents is associated with their ratings of both place and performance variables (Goldberg et al., 2012), which have both direct effects on resident happiness and indirect effects mediated by health and social connections (Layard, 2005).

But do these effects of place and performance vary across the lifespan?  We recently examined this issue in a large-scale survey of 5,000 younger and older adults living in Berlin, London, New York, Paris, and Toronto.  We hypothesised that both place and performance variables would be important for the happiness of city residents. However, given that older adults may require more resources to remain independent, we also hypothesised that in the older adult group, performance variables would contribute more to happiness than place variables. Likewise, given that younger adults appear to value vibrant cultural and urban scenes, we hypothesised that the happiness of younger adults would depend more on place indicators.


Alexandria, Pixabay
Source: Alexandria, Pixabay


Survey respondents were asked to make self-assessments of their happiness, health, and social connections, and to evaluate different aspects of their cities. We studied four age groups: young (25–34 year olds), young middle aged (35–49 year olds), older middle aged (50–64 year olds), and older adults (65–85 year olds). When analysing the effects of performance and place indicators on happiness we controlled for a number of other factors that affect happiness, namely relative income, self-rated health status, relationship status, employment status, and relations with community and friends.

Our study revealed a number of interesting effects.  Consistent with previous research, we found that the character and beauty of cities and the accessibility of amenities such as parks, public transportation, and recreational and cultural activities (i.e., place variables), as well as quality of government services associated with policing, schools and healthcare (i.e., performance variables) influence the happiness of city residents.  Importantly, the happiness of younger city residents is more likely to be affected by place variables whereas for older residents, performance variables are more important.

Specifically, our statistical model revealed that the influence of the city performance variables on happiness increases from younger to older cohorts. The opposite trend was found when the relationship between place and happiness was examined. The results of our study suggest that younger residents are happier when they have easy access to theatres, museums, a variety of shops, convenient public transportation, parks, and sports facilities. They are happier when they have options that enable them to experience the city culturally and socially, when they feel proud of their city, and when they perceive their city as beautiful. This means that to attract younger residents cities must create and maintain high quality, accessible place amenities.


Unsplash, Pixabay
Source: Unsplash, Pixabay


However, interestingly and unexpectedly, the city as a place does not significantly influence happiness among older residents (at least not directly). Happiness for older adults is affected more by the perceived quality of government services in the city, such as safety from crime, good schools, and access to quality healthcare for children, the socially disadvantaged, elderly, disabled, or poor.

In general, the younger a resident the more likely they are to be influenced by place variables, and the older they are the more likely they are to be influenced by performance variables. City residents in the young middle age category (35–49 year olds) are influenced by both.

The attractiveness of cities, the convenience of public transportation, the availability of cultural, sport and shopping amenities, and the quality of city services are shared responsibilities among many groups including engineers, planners, architects, developers, business leaders and government policymakers, and thoughtful human decision-making can determine the success of cities in providing residents with opportunities to have a meaningful quality of life and age in place.  The overall performance of cities may become increasingly important as people age and their functional capacities decline. The environment becomes increasingly important in supporting independence and well-being as we age.  It is important that we consider residents of all ages in urban planning.  It is important that we consult with citizens in the design of well-being policies and city design projects (Hogan et al., 2015).  The ability of cities to offer functional and recreational amenities and provide meaningful services that people value not only directly affects happiness, it is also significantly associated with other factors important to happiness such as health and social connectedness. These findings come at a time when most cities around the world are experiencing massive growth (United Nations, 2015) and world leaders are increasingly using measurements of well-being to evaluate their culture and society (Stiglitz, Sen, & Fitoussi, 2009). Our work contributes to an emerging understanding that both place-making and policy-making matter for the happiness and health of people living in cities.

Simply put, it is thoughtful human decision-making, not random chance that determines the success or failure of cities to provide opportunities for residents to have a successful and meaningful quality of life and to age in place. Making good decisions in this context amounts to a good investment in our own future, given that these decisions have a significant impact on the vitality of our cities and our health and happiness over the lifespan.

Michael Hogan (Twitter), Phoebe McKenna-Plumley (LinkedIn; ResearchGate)

Featured Research Paper:

Hogan, M. J., Leyden, K. M., Conway, R., Goldberg, A., Walsh, D., & McKenna-Plumley, P. E. (2016). Happiness and health across the lifespan in five major cities: The impact of place and government performance. Social Science & Medicine, 162, 168-176.

Link to journal article online


Florida, R. (2005). Cities and the creative class. New York: Routledge.

Florida, R. (2010). Who’s your city? How the creative economy is making where to live the most important decision of your life. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Goldberg, A., Leyden, K. M., & Scotto, T. (2012). Untangling what makes cities liveable: Happiness in five cities. Urban Design and Planning, 165(3), 127-136.

Hogan, M. J., Johnston, H., Broome, B., McMoreland, C., Walsh, J., Smale, B., … & Groarke, A. M. (2015). Consulting with citizens in the design of wellbeing measures and policies: Lessons from a systems science application. Social Indicators Research, 123(3) 857-877.

Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. New York: Penguin Books.

Leyden, K. M., Goldberg, A., & Michelbach, P. (2011). Understanding the pursuit of happiness in ten major cities. Urban Affairs Review, 47(6), 861-888.

Lui, C. W., Everingham, J. A., Warburton, J., Cuthill, M., & Bartlett, H. (2009). What makes a community age‐friendly: A review of international literature. Australasian Journal  on Ageing, 28(3), 116-121.

Stiglitz, J. E., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J. (2009). Report by the commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress. Retrieved from

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World urbanization prospects: The 2014 revision, (ST/ESA/SER.A/366). Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s