Tracy Metz On Happy Cities

Recently we crowd-funded our new book Pop-Up City: City-Making in a Fluid World, that will be published in May this year. One of the rewards we offered to backers of the Kickstarter campaign was a special interview on this blog. This post is the first in a special series that features some of the generous people that helped us make the book happen.

An American by origin, Tracy Metz is an Amsterdam-based journalist and author on urban and spatial issues. She writes for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and the weekly magazine the Groene Amsterdammer, focusing on topics such as the city, photography, and architecture, and she is a correspondent for Architectural Record. Besides that, she also hosts a monthly live talkshow called Stadsleven that discusses city life in general and in Amsterdam in particular. We talked to her about the theme of this month’s edition, The Happy City.

Tracy Metz (photo by Bibi Veth)

Tracy Metz (photo by Bibi Veth)

How did the idea for a live talkshow about the city come about?
“As a journalist, my role is to translate complex discussions and debates into interesting stories for a broad audience. That’s what I have always done for the newspaper. A live talkshow is a way to bring information and discussion about specific professional subjects to a new platform. And it’s fun. It’s live and broadens the discussion. Before every show we compile an online dossier with blogs and columns by experts. That’s what makes the show unique as a multi-media platform.”

There seems to be a larger audience for city-related events now than just a few years ago. How come?
“Well, the building, architecture, and planning scene in Western Europe has been decimated over the last few years. People lose their jobs and recent graduates can’t find one. People keep themselves busy with events and discussions about the profession. At the same time, there’s something profound going on – the amount of informal communication about the urban profession has increased massively through blogs, Facebook, and small events. At the same time the formal communication about the field in professional magazines has diminished. The debate about the city has become more democratic. People want more influence on their immediate living environment. In that sense, it’s an interesting time in which developments like decentralization and deregulation have only just begun.”

The cover of Charles Montgomery's book 'Happy City'

The cover of Charles Montgomery’s book ‘Happy City’

How do the subjects for your talk show come about?
“One of the upcoming shows, for instance, will be about the influence of ‘global wealth’ on cities. I’m really interested in this process that is occurring now in the cores of cities like New York, London, and Amsterdam. Wealthy people from all over the world buy expensive apartments in the prime locations in the centres of these globalized cities. But these rich people probably only live there for short amounts of time. For the remainder of the time, the apartment stays empty, which has a negative impact on the city centre as a vibrant living environment. This international component of gentrification fascinates me. It’s a huge development and extremely international. Recently in London, an oil billionaire from Uzbekistan bought an apartment in an inner-city high-rise development. He paid over 100 million euros in cash. It’s not only the vibrancy that is problematic, but also the effect on the local market. Prices go up and locals won’t be living in the center of their own city any more.”

American Happiness Map based on 'happy' and 'unhappy' words used in tweets. Red means happy, blue means unhappy

American Happiness Map based on ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ words used in tweets. Red means happy, blue means unhappy

The upcoming show on the 27th of January is about The Happy City. What defines a happy city?
“In the end, it’s the overall goal of city making to create places where people can be happy. There are three main elements that we will look at during the talkshow next Monday. The first is social gatherings. One of the speakers on this is Charles Montgomery, who wrote the book Happy City. His finding is that social interaction and easy access to other people is the main driver of happiness. The second element is really basic. Urbanism should protect people from threats, like pollution, heavy noise or crime. Urban planning essentially exists to create a city in which nuisances from other urban functions do not affect inhabitants. Polluting industries are not allowed in residential neighbourhoods, but only on allocated premises, for example. However, this model for a city with separated functions that finds its origins in the industrial era is no longer up to date. The city begins to mix these designated areas and people are taking up residence in vacant offices. One of the main challenges is to promote a city that protects but also facilitates opportunities for citizens. That’s the third element of a happy city. People feel good in a city in which they can create chances for themselves and also use their living environment to meet their needs. They want to be a part of city-making.”

Do you think that this trend of people taking part in city-making will last?
“It will last. But how and what the outcome will be is not yet clear. There’s a transition going on – the government is withdrawing and this gap must be filled. We are now in a twilight zone. Citizens are asked to step up and participate in making the city a better place, while the government continues to oversee whether the things they do and propose are allowed or not. A new balance in this relationship is apparently necessary.”

On Monday, January 27th, The Happy City will take place at People’s Place in Amsterdam. Doors open at 7 PM and tickets cost €5. The featured guests for the program are Paul Schnabel, Pieter Hilhorst, Pieter Desmet, and Charles Montgomery (via Skype).