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Living in walkable neighbourhoods such as Ranelagh or Salthill makes us happier

We must prioritise the planning and building of walkable urban and suburban neighbourhoods

Neighbourhoods are the basic building block of cities. Think of Stoneybatter or Ranelagh in Dublin, or Salthill or the Westend in Galway. Often, neighbourhoods provide residents with a sense of belonging; there are people and stories, and histories associated with these local areas. They are destinations; places to live or visit. Historically, they were walkable urban or suburban places with a unique sense of place or a village feel. In these older neighbourhoods, residents can walk to local shops, pubs and restaurants as well as parks and transport stops; and children can walk to schools.

But things have changed. In the last 45 years or so, developers and planners have favoured the building of local places that are primarily residential and located away from local shops and places to socialise. Instead of being walkable, these places are often car-oriented. It is assumed residents own a car and will drive to shopping centres with large multiples often owned by international companies. Walking to local destinations can be difficult due to a combination of wide roads, speeding cars, long distances and often a lack of footpaths. The pedestrian (and cyclist) can feel unsafe and exposed in these inhospitable terrains largely engineered for cars.

These are two very different place types. Do these different development approaches have different effects on the people who live in them? We recently published research in the Journal of the American Planning Association which demonstrates that these different neighbourhood types do have different effects on residents. The data for this study comes from a household population survey of 1,064 adults living in 16 neighbourhoods in Dublin city and its suburbs. This data was originally collected as part of Dr Lorraine D’Arcy’s PhD dissertation at Dublin City University with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and co-supervised by Prof Catherine Woods, now at the University of Limerick.

The study demonstrates important linkages between the way a neighbourhood (or local area) is planned, and social connections, trust, health and happiness. People living in a walkable neighbourhoods were happier than those living in car-dependent places. They reported being significantly happier when asked the critical question, “All things considered, how happy are you right now?” Importantly, while focusing on walkability, we controlled for the effects of other aspects of the city environment (eg, access to neighbourhood sites such as green spaces and perceived attractiveness of neighbourhoods), along with feelings of trust and perceptions of crime; and we also controlled for employment and relationship status.


Walkability still emerged as a strong predictor of happiness. When broken down by age we found that living in a walkable neighbourhood had a strong and direct link to the happiness of people aged 36 to 45, and to a lesser extent in those aged 18 to 35. For older adults, we found that walkable places matter for happiness too, but this relationship comes about via a higher likelihood that residents will feel healthier, more socially connected and more trusting of others in walkable neighbourhoods, and this in turn affects their happiness.

Our findings suggest that mixed-use neighbourhood designs that enable residents to shop, socialise or visit green spaces within walking distance to their homes have direct and indirect effects on happiness. A key component of this happiness is that walkable places better enable social connections and trust in others. And perhaps because of this – and the fact that people tend to walk more in walkable places – residents are more likely to report feeling healthier and happier especially as they age.

We don’t think any of this is terribly surprising. Places with a village feel where residents can walk to local shops and pubs and restaurants and so on help create a sense of community and belonging. People feel they know people and can call upon others in times of need. They are less likely to feel isolated or lonely and more likely to have more social connections.

What is surprising is that many of those responsible for the development of new areas, including local representatives, developers and engineers among others don’t recognise the key value of delivering walkable neighbourhoods for human wellbeing. We can say this because even when planners strive to create such places, they are rarely delivered.

Why are we not prioritising the planning and building of walkable urban and suburban neighbourhoods? We feel there is a serious need to re-evaluate the way our urban and suburban communities are planned, designed, engineered and developed. It is high time we re-imagine the planning process with an eye towards plans that are good for people and their wellbeing. We all know housing is important these days; so too is community and human connections.

Kevin M Leyden is a professor of political science and public policy in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Galway. Lorraine D’Arcy is a senior lecturer in the School of Transport Engineering, Environment and Planning, and the Sustainability Action Research & Innovation Lead at the Technological University Dublin. Michael J Hogan is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at University of Galway.