Friday, December 21, 2012

The Urban Design of Happiness

A couple of years ago, I read “The Architecture of Happiness” by Alain de Botton.  It’s a philosopher’s perspective of on architecture and how we relate to architecture.  I found meaningful insights in its pages, but it didn’t greatly affect my world view.

I recently spied it on my shelves and decided to read it again, this time substituting “urban design” wherever I came across “architecture”.  The replacement was inspired.  Entire sections bloomed with new meaning.

In particular, this sentence caught my attention, “Belief in the significance of (urban design) is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is (urban design’s) task to render vivid to us who we might really be.”

I spent my youth and early professional years in California.  Many different cities in California, but always in the Golden State.  I enjoyed California, but felt that I owed it to myself to see other places.  At the age of 29, I transferred with my employer to an opening in Seattle.

I found myself in a new place with a new wife, learning a new way of thinking and living.  Seattle may belong to the same country as the North Bay, but they view the world differently up there.  And that’s a great thing to learn and to experience on a daily basis before one’s 30th birthday.

I mention this because there was a moment when it crystallized that my time in Seattle was a turning point in my life.  It was at Christmastime, probably during my first or second year in the Northwest.  I was in the northern end of downtown, outside the Frederick & Nelson department store.  It was a functional but attractive part of downtown.  It was the early evening in Seattle, which in December means a dark and cloudy sky.

As I walked, there was a moment when the holiday lights on a store awning were reflected in the glistening sidewalk.  (It was Seattle after all.)  That moment, surrounded by stately buildings and with the colored lights reflected from a thin sheen of water, has always remained with me.  It was a moment when I knew that Seattle was different and that I was different, both in good ways.

Urban design may not have been essential to the moment.  But it provided the backdrop for a memory that has stuck with me for nearly thirty years.  And that seems a fine role for urban design.

Frederick & Nelson is gone now.  The doors closed in 1992.  But it lives on in one small way, two if you count my memory of holiday lights.  The store was known for its Frangos candy.  In the way that people in North Bay use bottles of wine as hospitality gifts, the people of Seattle used boxes of Frangos, especially during the holidays.  (I told you that Seattle was a different place.)  Despite the demise of Frederick & Nelson, Frangos live on at other department stores in the Northwest.  For which I’m pleased.

I eventually spent eighteen years in the Pacific Northwest before returning to California with my 50th birthday on the horizon.  I’m pleased to be back.  But I wouldn’t have missed the years that I spent up north.  And those holiday lights reflected from a sidewalk is a keystone to how I remember that part of my life.

I haven’t finished rereading “The Architecture of Happiness” and won’t until the New Year.  But this memory seemed sufficiently meaningful to share now.  Holiday lights hung in an urban setting will do that.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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