A Better Bay: Can North Bay be a Happy City?

This article is the first in a new Gateway series called A Better Bay. As humans, we overestimate what we can accomplish in a short period of time, but we underestimate what we can accomplish over long periods of time. If we take a long run view of our city, we can ensure we live in a city designed intelligently, with its residents in mind.

A Better Bay is an attempt to look at the future of our city, and thoughtfully deliberate as a community about our best path forward.


As a Geographer, it’s pretty much a requisite that I believe that the space we occupy matters.

Luckily, common sense bares this out, as the setting of our lives obviously has potential to affect our mindset:

Think about the way your mindset changes after you clean the house and get rid of some clutter. You feel lighter, happier, and being in a clean space helps with mental health concerns more than most would care to admit.

So almost everyone wants a nice space to occupy. People spend countless hours and thousands and thousands of dollars decorating their house to suit their personal aesthetic preferences. Hell, people with money even get custom homes, designing the space themselves to suit their preferences. They do this for a variety of reasons, but the most important is as simple as that it’s nice to be in a nice space.

Compare the following photos: which space would you rather occupy?

Photo by Samet Kurtkus on Unsplash
Photo by Kirill on Unsplash

Space matters.

But what happens when you scale up, and the size of the space no longer represents simply your own responsibility? Think your neighbourhood, or your city. You have control over your own property, but there is little you can do about how others choose to tend to (or not) their own property.

This is an example of an externality, which will probably become a pretty big concept if you continue to follow this blog. An externality is when the actions one person, or a group of people, imposes a cost on others. The others usually don’t receive the benefits of the actions, or get to be involved in the decision imposing the cost.

A local example:

Say your neighbour nearly buries their house in collectable and tacky objects (a certain house might come to mind). That particular home owners decision to have their house in their, let’s say unique, aesthetic, is perfectly fine. It’s their property after all, they’re just exercising the freedom to have their space, their way. But the people who live nearby are actually the ones who have their view affected by it. Thus, the non-monetary cost of the decorations, the bad view to neighbouring houses, is borne by the neighbours rather than the decision maker (homeowner).

A global example:

We might be able to control our own individual carbon footprints, even on a household scale we have lots of control, but the cost of super-polluters is actually borne by all of us in the reduced air quality, and the consequences of climate change, despite the fact we have nothing to do with planning their emissions strategy.

The emissions caused by industry is an example of an externality.
Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

A more timely example:

People who elect to go out and say, party, during this pandemic are sort of just exercising their freedom, right? Well yes, their choice has a cost that as an individual, they have increased the risk they get the virus. The externality is that everyone who has no choice but to interact with that person, or even occupy the same space at a different time like public transit, is also at an increased risk of transmission.

It seems freedom really isn’t free.

If this brings to mind the “prisoner’s dilemma” from a past post, then you’re definitely onto something. The idea that other people making bad choices makes our choices less relevant or potent leads to apathy, and more bad choices.

So, if we want to have nice places to live and exist on a large scale, we have a more complex task on our hands than simply tidying our rooms. There will be varying opinions on what the best form of the city should be, structurally and aesthetically. But just because a task is difficult or complex doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

Nudges

One major concept that I’d like to get into before getting to the meat of this article is the idea of “nudges”. The book Nudge by Cass Sustein and Richard Thaler describes the way that people’s free will can be influenced by subtle cues and changes.

A simple example: the relative height of products on a grocery store shelf to eye level. We’re more likely to see the products at eye level, and store managers know this, and arrange product accordingly. Keep in mind this effect is present whether its accounted for or not, there is no neutral layout, as no matter what is placed at eye level, we’ll see that first.

The arrangement of products on a grocery store shelf nudges the customer towards some products over others.
Photo by Vlad Frolov on Unsplash

You can harness this power to make more money, putting more lucrative products at eye level. You can harness this power to make people eat healthier, putting the healthiest products at eye level.

But even if you arrange the products completely randomly, the design is not neutral, it still nudges the shopper to an item and away from others.

The book stresses that nobody wants to make decisions for anyone, instead it focuses on designing the world in a way that guides most people down the right path on their own volition. The pair coin the term ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ to describe the strategy.

They don’t aim to take anyone’s freedom to choose, just to influence their ability to make the correct choice.

Take the example of ones 401k retirement fund. In a situation where an employee has to opt-in to contributions to their 401k, they are far less likely to do so than in a situation where the default is contributing, and one must opt-out if they don’t want to.

The simple explanation for this is a type of inertia. People have the tendency to stick with the default. People tend to go with the flow, and if there’s effort involved in making one choice or another, people tend to let the effort tax forgo the proper decision, sticking with the default. Hell, most people use their phones default ringtone, and there isn’t a great deal of effort involved in changing it.

From my own environmental area of expertise, a company that sets its default printer setting to double sided tends to use a lot less paper than ones that require the user to select for a double sided option. The key here is the user can still get the single sided option if they’d like, their freedom to choose hasn’t been removed, they’ve just been nudged in the right direction by the default. Ironically, while crafting a presentation on this concept in Grad School, I printed my notes out single sided, which was the default setting on my printer (at the time).

Understanding that the way things are designed influences our decision making goes a long way to understanding the way that urban design can affect the general well-being of its residents.

Happy City

There are many ways which you can judge a city. You could use any number of measures, like Gross Domestic Product (GDP), GDP per capita, or the percentage of working age resident employed, which might give you an idea of the economic strength of a city. You could judge a city by its weather, the average temperature or annual precipitation say. You could judge the city by its density, electing to live either in an apartment, in close quarters with others in a more dense area, or in a van down by the river in a less dense area. You can judge a city by how it feels to you, by the presence or absence of major sports teams, or any number of amenities it has, or doesn’t have.

In his book, Happy City, Journalist and Urban Experimentalist (Urban Design Consultant) Charles Montgomery proposes that the best measure should be the happiness of the people who live there.

In Montgomery’s book, the author looks to psychological research to apply to city planning to ensure that the spaces that we create and interact with have positive effects on our psychology, and our relationships. Think nudges built into the way the city is planned, guiding citizens to make better decisions without robbing them of their right to choose how they want to live.

Beyond nudges, Montgomery utilizes research on what make people happy, and looks for ways to apply it to city planning, such as the positive effect of natural scenery and the protection of view corridors from overdevelopment. The way people move through cities is also a large focus of the book, such as the effect long commutes have on people, the ideal method and distance of commute to support happiness (believe it or not, the shortest commutes are not the closest correlated to happiness).

The following quote from the book, including a quote from Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogata, Columbia, is taken from the book’s first chapter directly. I think it states pretty perfectly the spirit behind Happy Cities.

” “If we defined our success just in terms of income per capita, we would have to accept ourselves as second-or third rate societies- as a bunch of losers” he said. No the city needed a new goal. Penalosa promised neither a car in every garage nor a socialist revolution. His premise was simple. He was going to make Bogotans happier”

Montgomery (2013). Happy City.

For me, this quote brings to mind Moneyball, the story of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Bean who decided to use different measures and perspectives than opponents to improve his baseball team (another case of book > movie by the way). Penalosa decided to use measures other than economic ones to try to improve his city. He aimed to make the city more pedestrian and biker friendly, and developed the rapid mass transportation in the city to improve public transportation so less people needed to use their cars. In short, he was looking to maximize happiness that came with planning decisions rather than maximize economic benefit.

So, what exactly makes a city a happy one? Montgomery proposes eight guidelines that help conceptualize what exactly a Happy City is:

  • “It should should maximize joy and minimize hardship.”
  • “It should lead us towards health rather than sickness.”
  • “It should offer us the freedom to move, live, and build our lives as we wish.”
  • “It should build resilience against economic and environmental shocks.”
  • “It should be fair in the way it apportions space, service, mobility, joys, hardships, and costs.”
  • “Most of all, it should enable us to build and strengthen the bonds between friends, families, and strangers that give life meaning, bonds that represent the city’s greatest achievement and opportunities.”
  • “The city acknowledges and celebrate our common fate, that opens doors to empathy and cooperation, will help us tackle the greatest challenges of our century”

So there we have it, a few vague guidelines for which to reframe our understanding of our city. Of course, Montgomery provides great examples for these, and real life has provided a great example of the final criteria, our common fate, in the form of COVID-19.

Notice the criteria concerns itself with equity, social lives, resilience, freedom, and of course, happiness. Montgomery has applied these principals in his home city of Vancouver, and had a TedTalk that reached millions of viewers on the subject.

So the real question is this: is North Bay a “Happy City”? and if not, can it be?

Considerations for Density and Sprawl

One thing that should be addressed immediately is that North Bay is a small city with a population of just over 51,000 as of the 2016 Census. Admittedly, Happy City is more geared towards larger urban centres, like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver etc. All the same, that just means we have to keep the fit of strategies proposed by Montgomery in mind. It doesn’t mean what his book has to say about urban design is completely irrelevant, just that it will have to be considered at scale.

Consider the density of North Bay of 771.5 People per Square Kilometres, when compared to Vancouver at 5,492.6. North Bay represents a much sparser pattern of human development. When you consider the scene of high-rise apartments compared to our own skyline, this is abundantly obvious.

Vancouver’s Skyline
By Xicotencatl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49503393
North Bay is a very different city than the ‘Happy City’ model Vancouver, but it has its advantages.

Right now, its easy to feel like sparsity is an asset, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: crowds and foot traffic are actually a disadvantage. But consider the advantages of living in a city centre in normal times: tons of choice of shopping and dinning options, many companies as potential employers, efficiency of space and resources, and not having to get in the car to go, well, anywhere at all.

Ok, I’m exaggerating a tad. Depending on where you reside in North Bay, you can probably walk to a dining or grocery shopping option. But honestly, as someone who lived in the city without a car for about 5 years, it was a royal pain in the ass.

The city pattern is one of sprawl, everything is spread out. There are a few particular areas (Algonquin, Lakeshore, Northgate Mall and Downtown come to mind) that people can buy things, many areas where people live, and a few areas where industry resides. This model of urban planning, with distinct zones, is designed with the automobile in mind, not necessarily people.

Now many readers are in North Bay specifically to get away from density, and I fully understand that. There’s a reason I came North for school. There’s a reason I stayed. It definitely has its advantages. That said, we have to find ways to make it easier to move around in North Bay, because with the sprawl comes an effort tax with everything we do: visits to friends houses, grocery trips, etc., they all come with the price of time and getting across large residential areas, in addition the the dimension of time and scheduling. If you don’t have a car, this effort tax feels gigantic.

North Bay’s sprawl makes it a pain to be a pedestrian.

I won’t get too deep into this, I’ve got a future article planned that tackles the issue specifically, but its important to know that our layout is a disadvantage in some regards. These weaknesses need to be acknowledged to be addressed.

Housing

While metropolises come with a lot of convenience, nobody wants to live in a cramped apartment building. With the efficiency that comes with packing a ton of residents into a relatively small amount of space in terms of the buildings footprint, there is real dread from being cramped in close quarters with a lot of people.

Coincidently, a large amount of North Bay’s rental market is actually very similar to what is recommended in Happy City. One major psychological finding was that people like the opportunity to be around people, as long as they have the option to retreat to their own space. With that balance in mind, the rental options in the city, include duplexes, triplexes, and small buildings and converted houses with 10 units or less.

These settings provide the optimal balance of communal social interaction, whereas isolate properties have a bigger effort tax associated with being social, and large apartments have an uncomfortable amount of social interactions, and insufficient space for retreat.

The apartments on Main Street above the businesses represent a good quantity of units for ideal social interaction.
By Ccyyrree – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21612424

So while our city is obviously far from perfect in terms of a real estate and rental market, score one for North Bay in terms of the size of the groups of units, it’s a good starting point.

Safety & Trust

This is a big one. People really need to feel safe to be happy. Ultimately, a lot of our hardwiring from prehistory remains, our general goal in most situations is to feel safe. As I described in a previous article, crime statistics are important, but ultimately, safety is something that is perceived. People either trust their neighbours or they don’t.

Lately, I would guess there isn’t a ton of trust in North Bay. People have noted that rising crime and the opiate crisis have made them feel less safe.

In Happy City, one of the experiments on safety and trust was simply asking people “if you lost your wallet, what percentage would you assign to the probability of getting it back?”

The idea being that whatever the real odds are, the odds you assign represents your perception of your city in terms of trustworthiness. Interestingly the study found that most people vastly underestimate the experimental odds of actually receiving their wallet back.

The findings in the research were that larger city residents were lest trusting of their community, whereas medium and smaller cities (like North Bay) actually did better by this measure. While North Bay in particular might have some shady characters that erode communal trust, we can surely get back to the point where we are a community, trusting of each other and kind to each other.

(Hopefully, when this page gets more followers, I’ll be able to put up a poll and get a reasonable sample with which we can attribute a public perception of this situation for North Bay, as well as some other interesting public perceptions I’d like to capture.)

Wellness

Does North Bay as a city nudge us towards sickness or health?

Once again, ultimately people will live how they choose to live, but the setting of their lives can prime them to make good decisions.

Regarding healthcare, this is sort of mixed. We’re lucky to be home of the Regional Health Centre, an awesome, and modern facility, ensuring that there is good immediate care available when needed. That said, there’s a shortage of family doctors in the city, which means crammed clinics, and more importantly, the procrastination of residents in getting conditions checked on, which adds knock on costs to the system through unaddressed health issues.

In terms of lifestyle, does North Bay encourage people to live well? Does it encourage us to eat healthy? To exercise?

Well, this is tough to evaluate. There are certainly options for physical activity, with numerous fitness facilities around town, and outdoor recreation options like biking trails, hiking trails, and others. That said, aside from the Kinsmen and Kate Pace Way trails, generally the city isn’t very bike friendly, with a lack of bike lanes, and poorly paved roads.

The city also lacks some of the outdoor exercise equipment that other municipalities have adopted. I also find that the recreational facilities like public tennis and basketball courts are lacking or inaccessible relative to other communities.

Outdoor exercise equipment in Brooklyn nudges residents towards healthy living.
By Tdorante10 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76082961

North Bay’s public trails certainly nudge people to take advantage of them and get outside, but I think it’s obvious we can probably improve in this regard as time goes on.

Kinsmen Trail
https://www.northeasternontario.com/bike-trails-in-north-bay/

Nature

This is a category where we get a big win. In the psychological research explored in Happy City, it was found that the presence of nature can have profoundly positive influence on mindset. Many of these studies considered the relative happiness of people working or living in the same areas with different views, those with and without nature. One such study even found hospital patient recovery was correlated with natural views in their hospital room.

North Bay is undoubtedly beautiful. Surrounded by forests and lakes, we’ve have great views, and we’re truly lucky to have nature so well integrated into our city. Sometimes I think it’s so present people, myself included, take it for granted.

In Happy City, there is a specific reference to the fact that people need nature in different doses in their life: small, medium, and large.

Consider North Bay in this regard. At a large scale, we hit the jackpot. A beautiful forested escarpment overlooking forests, Trout Lake and Lake Nipissing. Life is good.

Lake Nipissing and the escarpment provides a beautiful natural backdrop to our city
By Liam Quinn – Flickr: Island on Lake Nipissing, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16217385

Regarding a medium dose of nature, think smaller wooded areas in town rather than landscape scale features listed above. Chippewa Creek is a perfect example of this, and while it is not a perfect creek, it is beautiful to have water flowing right through town, with a well maintained bike path along it to boot.

There are definitely other smaller wooded areas and natural features scattered around town. That said, I’m sure a lot of people walk to the bus stop, or even go their whole day without getting a dose of that medium sized nature. While we certainly have this medium sized nature in the city, it’s not necessarily evenly distributed among neighbourhoods.

In terms of small doses of nature, in my opinion, we struggle a little more. Small doses refers more to peoples properties, things you’d see on a walk down the street, etc. Many properties in many of the cities neighbourhoods are unkempt in an unsettling way, and it’s actually a little surprising how few streets are lined with trees given the area. Looking at satellite images on Google, it seems like the trees in backyards were prioritized over the fronts. This internalizes the benefit to the home owner over the community a little.

Satellite Image of North Bay. Notice the presence of trees is between the houses rather than lining the street, providing a bland street view.
Image courtesy of Google Maps

In my personal experience, a walk down the street in Barrie actually provides this small dose of nature better than North Bay, despite not necessarily offering the same benefits in large scale natural features that North Bay has.

Satellite Image of Barrie. Notice that while trees are still in peoples back yards, the streets are also lined with trees, providing more small scale nature to those travelling through, and living in, these neighbourhoods.
Image Courtesy of Google Maps.

Again, remember I’m not writing this to insult our city needlessly: we can only make things better if we acknowledge how they could be improved

So is North Bay a Happy City?

Well, let’s quickly go over the criteria from Happy City again.

  • “It should should maximize joy and minimize hardship.”
  • “It should lead us towards health rather than sickness.”
  • “It should offer us the freedom to move, live, and build our lives as we wish.”
  • “It should build resilience against economic and environmental shocks.”
  • “It should be fair in the way it apportions space, service, mobility, joys, hardships, and costs.”
  • “Most of all, it should enable us to build and strengthen the bonds between friends, families, and strangers that give life meaning, bonds that represent the city’s greatest achievement and opportunities.”
  • “The city acknowledges and celebrate our common fate, that opens doors to empathy and cooperation, will help us tackle the greatest challenges of our century”

So you’ve probably noticed I only delved into a few different topics, and didn’t look at criteria points specifically. Given their vagueness I thought it more useful to talk about a few more concrete points about the layout, natural features, housing, and wellness in the city. Again, I do plan on writing articles on some of the mentioned topics specifically.

That said, even with a shallow delve, it’s pretty clear that our city has a ways to go to be considered a ‘Happy City’.

The good news is that the idea that we should be planning in the name of the experience of residents, and improving their mental well being through urban design is an inspiring concept. We know North Bay is never going to be Ottawa, but we’re positioned in a lovely area, and with some careful deliberation, we can make this city an unbelievable place to live and visit.

I can’t wait to tackle potential avenues for these improvement in coming articles in the A Better Bay series. Stay tuned.

RM


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Further Reading:

Montgomery (2013) Happy City: Transforming life through urban design.

Sustien and Thaler (2008) Nudge: Improving decisions on health, wealth and happiness

8 thoughts on “A Better Bay: Can North Bay be a Happy City?

  1. What a great article and a great framework to have an objective look at our community. I remember nearly 15 years ago talking with a city official that was struggling to find a way to grow our city. I remember asking him why we don’t just focus on making it a great city. There is no correlation between the size of the community and the relative happiness of the residents. How much growth do we need? What is the optimum size of our city when we reach the most efficient scale and we achieve a great place to live? Have a look at some of the projects by Urban3 out of the U.S., they have some amazing graphics and measurements of urban environments. Keep up the great stories!!!

    Like

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