A happy city is one where the majority of residents can say that they are leading fulfilled lives. Such people, in turn, are able do things that benefit, not only themselves and their families, but also their fellowmen. Hence, developing cities with empowered individuals is the most effective means to safeguard peace and stability.
The making of a happy city is an exercise that takes time and concerted effort from multiple stakeholders — the government, the private sector and the people. To tweak an old saying — ‘a city of happiness is not built in a day’.
It takes progressive, cumulative action, as suggested by Maslow’s theory. The 20th century psychologist suggested that a person’s state of well-being advances as a series of his needs were progressively met. Popularly portrayed as a five-tiered pyramid, the theory identifies fundamental needs as being safety, love and belonging.
Only when these basic needs are met can an individual advance to the need of pursuing ‘self-esteem’, before arriving at ‘self-actualisation’ — the epitome of his life where he is able to realise his true potential.
The same argument applies to cities and their ability to generate happiness and productivity — a point well illuminated by our own history. Only when a city has developed a stable system that is able to cater well to the fundamental needs of residents, can it evolve to the phase when residents become free to self-actuate.
Ancient cities such as Byblos, Damascus, Tyre, Alexandria and Baghdad are good examples of forward-looking societies where residents enjoyed a high happiness quotient and a sustained era of peace and prosperity. Conversely, a city that remains mired in the lower strata of the pyramid is more likely to regress and breed social instability.
This logic is a driving force behind urban initiatives of several governments worldwide, who are keen to design cities that connect with the happiness of their people. Such governments have planned and executed urban programmes that serve a person’s fundamental needs and eliminate various pain points — access to education, opportunities for gainful employment, a sense of belonging within a beautiful, safe and peaceful environment, and a platform of efficient infrastructure.
As such a set-up matures, it reaches a level where it links more and more to a resident’s self-esteem and facilitates his ability to self-actualise.
Naysayers may argue that the Middle East’s challenges are far too many and deep to be overcome by modelling happy cities. But this is precisely the reason why cities in our region must strive to become pillars of safety, prosperity and enlightenment.
Rather than being a Utopian dream, a happy city represents a real ecosystem that is socially and economically viable.
The UAE Government is marching ahead with precisely that realisation. Our government has tirelessly planned and executed a host of initiatives that have created and sustained an efficient social and economic system that has not only benefited its own citizens — but also people from all corners of the globe. More pertinently, the Government of Dubai became the first in the Middle East to place ‘people’ and their ‘happiness’ at the Centre of its administrative goals. The new Dubai urbanism — if I may call it that — is best represented in Dubai World Central (a 145-square kilometre masterplanned city that is fast emerging around the Al Maktoum International Airport), which is basing itself on the happiness of its residents.