It used to be, not so long ago, that people were leaving big cities in search for quieter corners, ultimately missing and returning to city life, but still craving more. The question is now: can we have it all? The historical landmarks, cultural-rich nightlife, and creative recreational spaces for people to enjoy with their family and friends? Can we build cities with spaces and systems that are actually good for our health and happiness?
Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives With Urban Design answers those questions in his book, an essential tool for understanding and improving our own communities, including West Palm Beach. He recently won a contest hosted by Shore to Core, a project that has been spearheaded by the City of West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, which is looking for ways to revitalize our spaces such as the waterfront in Downtown West Palm Beach.
“Our job is to conduct research to help us understand how changes in public space design influence people’s happiness,” explained Montgomery, who is running a series of sensory experiments at the waterfront in the next three days. So far, what they have done is create an interesting fashion intervention—a little oasis with scenes and frames—potted flowers, small bistro tables and chairs, with colorful large umbrellas that provide a respite under the South Florida heat—showing some of the waterfront’s paths, but also adding shade and some greenery along the way.
Montgomery and his team are looking, testing, and using a series of surveys to learn more about how people experience the waterfront in various scenarios. He hopes to take this information and submit it to the architectural team that’s redoing the waterfront so that they in turn may be able to evaluate what the city needs and how the people react to certain elements, using their senses: taste, hearing, vision, feeling and touch.
Happy City setting by the Waterfront
The people participating in this experiment are attached to sensors that are connected to a cell phone that they take with them on a ten-minute walk. “We are recording people’s heart rates, skin changes like sweat, which is a sign of arousal, but we are also serving on a scale of well-being,” said Montgomery, whose plan is to take the same people to the same spot next day, where there will be nothing left—just the regular waterfront—and see how they react to it. “All of this, we imagine, will tell us something to inform future design in West Palm Beach.”
Montgomery and his team plan to come back to West Palm Beach sometime in March, when they will explain their finding. They will also conduct another experiment in a larger scale in front of city officials and many other people, and that finding will be later released at the end of March.
Meanwhile, local residents have found Downtown West Palm Beach to be the heart of this city, with plenty of places to meet, shop, and relax, as well as scenic walkways and jogging paths. Not to mention, plenty of large green lawns and other spaces where families can explore together. No doubt, this new waterfront urban design will add to the city’s lure and happiness.
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