Saturday 23 November 2019

We are far from Angela's Ashes but a happy society still eludes us

'Exclusive' estates are supposed to make us feel secure, yet urban design really just cages us in, writes Eoin O'Malley

'If politics could make people happier, that’s something we’d want it to do. That’s what it is there for'. Photo: David Soanes
'If politics could make people happier, that’s something we’d want it to do. That’s what it is there for'. Photo: David Soanes

Eoin O'Malley

Alice Taylor's memoir of growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s presents an idyllic country where children go To School Through the Fields and, though wanting for running water and electricity, the childhood presented is a happy one. It's a stark contrast to Frank McCourt's urban hell in Limerick city at around the same time where only the incessant rain washes the stench of disease from the streets in Angela's Ashes.

What made Taylor's childhood happy was that it was safe, and though not wealthy, her family and community gave her security. What made McCourt's so bad was the financial and emotional insecurity from an unstable home life, that wasn't balanced by anything we might call a community.

No politician since de Valera has glorified the Taylor-style childhood, nor do we sentimentalise the McCourt one. But if we were to take elements of one it would be from Taylor not McCourt you'd want to choose. It seemed happier.

If politics could make people happier, that's something we'd want it to do. That's what it is there for. Politics is meant to make our lives easier and, despite what we often think, it actually does. If it wasn't for the State that our elected politicians have delivered, we wouldn't have the schools, hospitals, roads, playgrounds, parks and lots of other good things we take for granted.

And what we hear about politicians just looking after themselves or the rich, that's just noise. Look at areas such as Ballymun, once a by-word for human and social decay, where you wouldn't go, except driving through in a car, at speed. Yet it is now quite a pleasant place. Politics made the lives of the people of Ballymun happier. And on any scale, Ireland today is a better place than it was 30 years ago. Political decisions have made us better off.

Politics works when it tries to solve 'collective action problems'. These are problems that we individually cannot fix or avoid, so we need to act collectively. There is no way any one of us could find out whether it is safe to eat certain foods - except the hard way - so we collectively hire the State to regulate and test food manufacturers. We are all made better off, including the food manufacturers, because we can now trust them enough to buy their goods.

Some good things make us happier, but it's hard for each of us to individually make them happen. There is growing academic research on happiness. We now have a fair idea of what makes people happy. Some of these are predictable: being wealthy makes you happy, and the happiest countries are wealthier ones. But it only works to a point. If you're already rich, extra money won't make you happier. What is really at play is economic security - people want to be wealthy enough that they can sustain shocks like losing a job, or some other disaster.

Another factor that is important is health. Healthier people are happier, and healthy countries are happier countries. Again security is important, and we want to be secure so that an illness or an accident won't have a huge impact on other aspects of our lives. Unsurprisingly, physical security is also important. The more crime, or fear of crime, the more miserable the citizenry.

But a big cause of happiness is companionship. People who have close families and friends are far happier. Marriage breakdown and loneliness is strongly associated with unhappiness. Linked to these, but less obvious, is trust.

Ask yourself the following question: if you were to lose your wallet in your local area, would you expect to get it back? Those who can answer yes to the question are much happier than those who answer no. What the question gets to is how well connected we are to our communities.

Now we might think that the State can't do much to help build up trust in our communities. That's not what states do. Wrong. States do it all the time, but unfortunately states often impose policies which unintentionally reduce trust.

Trust is reduced when we isolate ourselves from other people. Part of our problem is that we think we are made better off when we are isolated. Developers sell us a dream of 'exclusive luxury living in a secluded parkland setting'. The thing is when we get that 'exclusive and secluded' home it doesn't make us happier. To get this dream we are willing to drive further away from where we work and play. And so we spend more time in cars commuting, and less time with our families and less time with our neighbours. We don't know our neighbours, and children suffer from not seeing their parents. Trust falls, and we become miserable.

Many, if not most, new housing developments make their seclusion a selling point. And for that reason we have created a lot of cul-de-sacs that make moving around our areas more difficult. Most councils have Local Area Plans that say new developments should be 'permeable', so there should be a few pedestrian entrances that make it easy for people to walk or cycle through. But it's difficult to enforce this if the parcel of land the developer has is surrounded by walls of other cul-de-sac estates.

It creates oddities. Close to where I live there are two houses which back on to each other. They are metres apart. Yet according to Google Maps it would take 33 minutes to walk from one house to the other. That's because you'd need to go out of the single entrance of one estate, go around another set of 'exclusive and secluded' developments, and into the entrance of the other.

There are scores of examples. Walls in one part of Galway, which appears to be a particularly bad offender, turn what could for a local child be a 400-metre stroll to school, into a 2.5km commute on busy roads. Worried parents end up driving the kids.

Many children solve these problems with makeshift ladders to hop over walls. Older people can't do that, and that isolates them from potentially close neighbours. So it seems we would be better off if we were to build in permeability and shared spaces by knocking down the walls of the exclusive developments.

But people don't want the walls knocked down. We like the seclusion. We fear that our estates will become car parks for commuters. We fear that gangs of roaming youths will invade our secluded idyll. We are scared of those youths and the antisocial behaviour that might accompany them. We forget that those youths are our children, and our neighbours' children. They are not really to be feared.

Our urban designs cage kids in, making it harder for them to meet others, to get to shops or transport. It's making them bored, which makes them roam, and seem scary. We'd be all happier if we removed the walls.

It is time to think about redesigning our urban spaces to make them more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists.

We are edging in the right direction, but it is slow. We continue to build cul-de-sac developments with alluring names, but which actually bring us misery. 'To School over the Wall' might be the childhood memoir for our time, but it won't point to a happy childhood. It will be more McCourt than Taylor.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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