Home > Appreciated Quotes > The Triple-Bottom Line To Happiness Applied To Community Planning

The Triple-Bottom Line To Happiness Applied To Community Planning

Monday’s Quote & Subsequent Riff

Public spaces that bring people together in congenial activity produce happier citizens than those – like traffic jams – that spur animosity and aggression”

~ Hazel Borys, paraphrasing John Helliwell, prof. of economics at the University of British Columbia

The triple bottom-line (see below) applied to the design of public space, like our streets, neighborhoods, downtown spaces, has for years been minimized to two expressions: economics and environment. Often, only one has truly been considered.

All the while, the crucial third piece, social impacts, sits to the side. An extra; if money is available. It surfaces in terms like quality of life or, in Traverse City’s case, Small Town Character. Which, although fairly unclear, does put Traverse City ahead of other places and is one reason there is a pleasant and successful downtown.

Still, social and community impacts haven’t been the priority here or in other cities in part because it’s difficult to measure success, let alone label. We can see it when it happens, but its difficult to envision. The two “E” elements in a triple-bottom line have quantifiable benchmarks. In economics, we can look at property values and costumer traffic. For the environment, we measure carbon emissions and impacts like water quality. Even if those benchmarks come with massive assumptions, flashy graphs can show their measurement and decision makers can believe that they’ve made rationale choices. Social impacts haven’t had those at the ready.

In a recent article on Place Makers titled Can Cities Help You Forget Your Troubles, C’mon Get Happy?, writer Hazel Borys illuminates some of the trends in tackling the gap in measuring societal impacts. Tools and measures are now available that at the least serve as strong guides. She highlights how Vancouver’s Healing Cities project is using biomicmicry to explore how they can design place that helps the human body rebuild, repair and regenerate. For example, when a city designs a wider street that, although it serves a perceived need of greater automobile capacity, is it also increasing the stress level in the system and its citizens. Borys’ describes a more specific example, “Oxytocin, the trust hormone, goes up with eye contact. We get a whole lot more of it while walking. Which is just the beginning of balm to the spirit fostered in walkable neighbourhoods.

Local Connection: How We Prioritize Projects

Last week, I observed Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority’s strategic planning meeting. Their task was to  develop criteria to use for prioritizing projects. There is a strong historical legacy of the DDA boosting the economic advantage of downtown as its primary focus. For example, it’s how they build and sell new parking deck projects. What was interesting at last week’s meeting was 1) a healthy nod to environmental impacts and 2) a strong interest in Quality of Life issues as equal and connected to economic considerations. Some of the interconnected topics ranged from access/connectivity, aesthetics, diversity, leveraging of resources and impacts on the greater community.

As they move forward, I’d like the DDA board to adopt a triple-bottom line approach to their projects (this is transferable to the City planning as well). As I listened to their discussion, it became clear to me that their main concerns were:

  • Economic Development: being a catalyst for investment, jobs and people buying what they need. (i.e. increased store fronts & business diversity.)
  • Social Development: being a catalyst for social exchange, both planned and impromptu. (i.e. walkable infrastructure and public spaces dedicated to people.)
  • Community Development: Environmental impacts and considerations of the consequences of DDA projects on the greater community, both positive and negative.

Or, in a sense, another way to reach and describe a triple-bottom line. These are not exclusive of each other, but interact and aid one another. If downtown simply became a mall, it would fail. What makes it special is place-making and the values the place communicates.

It isn’t easy to develop criteria that falls under these three topics. I recommend developing a mission focused on enhancing community vitality, resilience and quality of life (all values supported at their meeting) and using that to drive a long-term structure for decision-making focused on place-making, as opposed to simply money-making.

Borys article isn’t the first to illuminate the connection to place, community development and happiness. For the last 10-years it’s been a consistent discussion of urban planning. However, it is another reminder that some of our loftier aspirations are becoming more and more identifiable, if not measurable, and are ready for implementation.

It’s a positive to witness the discussion occurring in our little micro-urban home.


via Ben Brown’s Sustainability’s Triple Bottom Line: Tool for Commit-a-Phobes?

  1. November 1, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Public space that already get used is a good thing. But does anyone know how to design public spaces that will get used. Seems to me that most public efforts I’ve seen in this direction have been hit-or-miss. Mostly miss.

  2. November 1, 2010 at 9:59 am

    I agree, too often we’ve gone for function over place-making and as a result have over-engineered spaces lacking not only attractive, but useful design. Again, this is mostly due to valuing the economic considerations over other considerations. I can only say, it’s in the details. Details. Details. If it’s a priority, there are firms that lead with design.

  3. Bill Palladino
    November 1, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    I think the design argument is spot-on. My thought tends to run to the business world. Would we rather our community resemble Apple products, or Microsoft products? Now I’m not selling either, but from a design, use, purpose, standpoint there is a clear winner for me. For my money we need more designers, or at least need to value their work as equal to that of engineers.

  4. November 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Bad metaphor, I think. Apples’s designs are transient products, and the designs themselves have transient appeal (as Apple itself acknowledges by constantly changing the designs). Kinda like asking whether we want our public spaces to be Lady Gaga or Shania Twain.

    Transient appeal probably should not be what you are shooting for in carving out public spaces. Lady Gaga can change her hairstyle tomorrow. Changing the size, shape & functionality of public space is a bit more of a challenge.

    And of course you are looking at a product with less than 10% market share. So even if we accept the metaphor, the answer to the question isn’t obvious if you are truly looking to create public spaces.

  5. Bill Palladino
    November 2, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I’ll take that Oran. Thanks for the clarity. I think I’m talking about the design aesthetic of their products. That design is critical to who the company is. But Steve Jobs has even said, the design of Apple products would be useless if the products sucked. Remember Lisa?

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