How happy infrastructure and urban design can change your life

Start dreaming of a world YOU want to live in! How can we design cities for the health of the people and our planet?

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes 

Can you imagine a world where every city is redesigned for a happier life? We’re calling it ✨happy infrastructure✨. 

Infrastructure includes energy, transport, water, solid waste, digital communications, buildings, and more!  “Infrastructure” can seem like a big scary term that makes it sound impossible for us to take action. So, we’re excited to dispel that fear!

Here’s what we’ll cover step-by-step: 

  1. READ: How can a happy city change everything?
  2. WATCH: What does a solarpunk city look like?
  3. ACT: What can we do step-by-step to feel like we’re in a happy city?
  4. REFLECT: How can we use our imagination to stay positive and optimistic?

Having access to happy infrastructure can do so much for our lives and the planet. Yes, you can reduce your emissions by flying less/driving less/biking more/walking more, but that’s MUCH easier when we’re surrounded by happy infrastructure. It’s far easier to hop on a bicycle when you don’t have to worry about being smashed by a car!

To us happy infrastructure feels so much more alive than simply using the term “urban design.” And we DESERVE happy infrastructure!

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"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

Why we need happy infrastructure

🎯 Action step 1 of 4: READ — Let's start by looking at a few articles together.

Want to know a secret? This article by Charles Montgomery shows how infrastructure and urban design can make a HUGE difference in our day-to-day lives. 

You’ll learn that:

  • 📈 Growth in the 20th century has been screwing us over. The excerpt below describes Bogotá, Colombia, but it might sound familiar to many of us:

Bogotá had been left deeply wounded by the 20th century's dual urban legacy: first, the city had been gradually reoriented around cars. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatized. This reorganization was both unfair – only one in five families even owned a car – and cruel: urban residents had been denied the opportunity to enjoy the city's simplest daily pleasures: walking on convivial streets, sitting around in public. And playing: children had largely disappeared from Bogotá's streets, not because of the fear of gunfire or abduction, but because the streets had been rendered dangerous by sheer speed.

  • 👨‍💼 Bogota’s Mayor of Happiness changed a lot in only three years of his term. Our favorite story from the article:

In the third year of his term, Peñalosa challenged Bogotáns to participate in an experiment. As of dawn on 24 February 2000, cars were banned from streets for the day. It was the first day in four years that nobody was killed in traffic. Hospital admissions fell by almost a third. The toxic haze over the city thinned. People told pollsters that they were more optimistic about city life than they had been in years.

    • 😊 Climate-friendly actions can be first and foremost joyful for YOU.
    ​Common knowledge asserts that sustainable actions entail “sacrifice”. But what if this is the wrong way of looking at it? Montgomery says, ”cyclists report feeling connected to the world around them in a way that is simply not possible in the sealed environment of a car, bus or train. Their journeys are both sensual and kinesthetic.”

    This sounds WAY nicer than sitting in traffic raging at the world, right? 

    This article is from ten years ago, and things have changed since then (not in such a happy way, alas). Public spaces need sustained investment. We continue to pour effort into maintaining our relationships with our friends and family—what if we took the same approach to the cities we lived in?

    Here’s another seed to plant in your brain:

    But Bogotá's transformative years still offer an enduring lesson for rich cities. By spending resources and designing cities in a way that values everyone's experience, we can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active and more free. We just have to decide who our cities are for. And we have to believe that they can change.

    Montomery dives deeper into this topic in the book, The Happy City. Get it from your local library or support an independent bookstore!

    We’ve seen that we can reverse the destruction of car-centric cities. We just have to be bold enough to do it, and keep doing it. Easy peasy right?

    🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 1 of 4: READ.

    What a solarpunk city can look like

    🎯 Action step 2 of 4: LISTEN — we'll watch a short video or listen to a podcast to further expand on our topic.

    Having trouble imagining what happy infrastructure looks like? Check out solarpunk cities. 

    A successful solarpunk city, according to Andrewism, requires ecological integration, decolonial ethos, organic design, and participatory planning.

    If you’re interested, watch the whole 40 minutes of this video—it covers philosophy, schools of thought, a dystopian poem! and lots of history! (The following is quoted and paraphrased.)

    You’ll learn:

    • ​🌳 Ecological integration. It refers to the conscious cultivation of a relationship with the land. The city is a habitat, which hosts a variety of communities, human and otherwise. The health of these communities is inextricably interlinked. Our urban space has vast ecological potential to contribute positively, instead of negatively, to the biosphere.
    • 🏙️ Decolonial ethos. ​In this case, decolonial urban planning refers to the active effort to combat the systemic inequalities that have been reinforced by urban layouts. A decolonial ethos asks questions like who profits off of the industry of the city, what communities are consistently cleared away for “urban development”, who has access to green spaces, and how can we reclaim public spaces for the actual public?
    • 🛝 Organic design. Andrew states that a solarpunk city must be designed to meet the organic needs of people themselves as the utmost priority, above and beyond the whims of capital. Basically, human-focused city design that includes and goes beyond transportation, and recognizes that the city is a living organism. Included in organic design is: reducing food miles through urban farming, producing local renewable energy, managing waste sustainably, investing in health, cultivating in social bonds, and more exciting ideas like building a ✨library economy✨
    • 📝Participatory planning. ​Simply put: “what matters most is that those who are affected by decisions have a say in those decisions.”

    Here’s to building the world we want to live in together and finding ways to form resilient community structures that bring us joy!

    🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 2 of 4: LISTEN.

    Step by step actions towards happy infrastructure

    🎯 Action step 3 of 4: ACT — Now it's time to do something. Let's go!

    The following actions focus on building skills individually and collectively to engage more in the spaces we live, work, and play in. ​​We’ve laid it out as a step-by-step action plan and we’re hoping that you do all of them. It’s ambitious, but worth it! Grab a buddy (or a few) and look through these action steps together.

    1. Dream about your happiest city.
    Schedule 10 minutes in your calendar for a journaling session on this prompt: 10 years from now, you’re living your most ideal life. What does it look like? Specifically, where do you live, and how do you get around to the activities/people that bring you joy?

    We want you to actually journal or draw it out—not just imagine it in your head. Research has shown that this type of activity (fancily called “episodic future thinking”) makes you more creative and resilient. We can’t build something if we haven’t imagined it first!

    2. Talk about your happiest city.
    Having a vision for the future can attract the solutions you’re looking for. By talking about your happiest city, you’re sharpening your senses to the right tools, inspiring others to dream bigger, and actively opening your mind to solutions. If you’re looking for tips to have climate conversations, check out our action pack on this topic!

    3. Go on a baseline bike ride or walk.
    Ditch your car and bike/walk around the place you live. What’s working well? What are your gripes? This baseline is important to more systemic actions—before you can ask someone to fix something, you need to know what needs to be fixed.

    4. Find ONE transit advocacy group in your city to support.
    ​​This Wikipedia page has a bunch of organizations worldwide, but the easiest way is to search “transit advocacy near me.” If you’re living in a dream infrastructure city and already have everything you want, you may want to search “anti-poverty organizations” or “disability justice organizations”. Or… simply speak out to help people understand how good they can have it! 

    5. Pick an infrastructure action area YOU can commit to supporting in the next three months.
    ​​Identify which of these you feel equipped and excited to learn more about: energy, transport, water, solid waste, digital communications, or buildings. You can read this UN report to learn more. Page 35 of the PDF has “key action areas for policy makers” — read more about the topic you chose.

    6. Write a letter to the editor on that topic.
    Writing a letter to the editor (LTE) is SIMPLE and high-impact! It’s usually only 2 paragraphs and the steps are so straightforward. Here's Climate Changemakers' guide! 1) Pick your topic by finding an article in your local newspaper that’s related to what you want to write about. 2) Find an angle and connect it to the article. You can look through past LTEs in your newspaper to get inspired 3) Write and send your LTE!

    Happy infrastructure starts with mindfulness and imagination above all. Although there are some relatively quick fixes such as building bike lanes, reducing housing costs for vulnerable populations, and performing health interventions, most infrastructure changes are long-term.

    🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 3 of 4: ACT.

    How imagination can save yourself and the world

    Before we go any further, it's time for you to pledge your commitment. It takes less than 30 seconds to pledge and we can bother you about it in a friendly way, so we can hold each other accountable. Pledge here!

    🎯 Action step 4 of 4: REFLECT — what can you commit to? What fresh perspectives can we look at?

    We’re boiling it down to two options:

    Option 1: Dream (and share) your happiest city.
    ​You were asked above to dream about your happiest city by reflecting on the following:  10 years from now, I am living my ideal life. I live in a place that [describe where you’re living]. I see my loved ones and do the things I enjoy by [how do you get around etc.]. 

    If you're looking for some inspiration, check out this article about how public transport actually turns a profit in Hong Kong! Also, this article about how car-choked Brussels transformed itself through infrastructure wins.

    Then, take this to the next level! Make a TikTok or a Reel with your happy infrastructure dreams and tag us @soapboxproject. We love the Wes Anderson trend. 😉

    Imaginable by Jane McGonigal


    Option 2: Learn about Episodic Future Thinking (EFT).
    In February 2022, we covered imagination as a tool to fight climate change. To build on that content, learn more about EFT, also known as mental time travel, from futurist Jane McGonigal! You’ll learn about positive and negative futures thinking. Cheers to offsetting climate despair and taking meaningful action!

    Start by dreaming of the world YOU want to live in. Chances are, we all want similar things. Before we jump into building something new, let’s figure out what the heck that actually is.

    🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 4 of 4: REFLECT.

    Check out our membership community for more resources like free weekly events with social justice experts, sustainable product discounts, pre-written email templates, a social impact job board, and in-person hangouts with new friends. Thanks for taking action with Soapbox Project!

    Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

    💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 7,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
    Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
    "The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar,
    Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
    "Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

    We're ready when you are.

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