Humans Weren’t Meant To Live In Cities: Canada Edition

At least, not if those cities are Toronto and Vancouver.

Even though scholars have not proved these factors are the direct causes of Vancouver and Toronto residents exhibiting the least life satisfaction of 98 communities in Canada, the researchers found they are strongly correlated to residents’ lack of a sense of well-being and belonging.

In a new study titled How Happy are Your Neighbours?, John Helliwell, Hugh Shiplett and Christopher Barrington-Leigh discovered Canadians are happier in smaller towns. “We found life to indeed be less happy in the cities,” they write. “This was despite higher incomes, lower unemployment rates and higher education in the urban areas.”

A quick glance here tells me that Winnipeg is the town for me, or maybe Hamilton.

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16 thoughts on “Humans Weren’t Meant To Live In Cities: Canada Edition

  1. This is extra interesting to me considering that 80 percent of Canadians live in cities and 1/3 of the population lives in Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal. (cite here for that second one).

    The confirmation-biased part of my brain is now thus like “HAHA Montreal is the best, Toronto is the worst, now I have proof!!!!” (Vancouver is complicated. Wonder what it would look like if they split up East Van and Van and did them separately.)

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    • This is extra interesting to me considering that 80 percent of Canadians live in cities…

      Could you expand this somewhat? About 78% of USians live in non-rural areas, but a bit over two-thirds of those live in suburbs. Eg, Denver proper has less than 25% of the population of the Denver metropolitan area. Does “live in cities” in Canada mean in the cities, or in the suburbs?

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      • I can’t but StatsCan apparently is interested in doing so: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-008-x/2008001/article/10459-eng.htm

        (Not sure if it answers your question but I thought it is the sort of thing you’d find interesting.)

        I didn’t mean to imply “so many more Canadians live in cities than other countries!” so much as I was thinking about how Canadian population density exists in a ribbon along the border latitudes, with big old knots at Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Like, if people really need to stop living in cities (as one might imply from Will’s series title), Canadians are basically screwed. If, however, they need to start living in places more like Montreal and less like Toronto…. that’s an interesting thing to think about. Because part of it is that to do that *safely* without breaking the thing that works, so just moving around won’t help. You’d have to transform things and what things would you have to transform?

        Except of course that the whole premise of the interpretations provided in the article is flawed, for the reason laid out by James K (SOOOO many more people move to Toronto for work than move to Montreal for work) and a few more I can think of but not articulate well at this moment.

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        • It wasn’t until I was much older (like, in my twenties) that I realized that Halifax is a rather tiny city. Every year as a kid we would go to Nova Scotia to my grandmother’s place on the South Shore/Lighthouse Route (Lunenberg/Bridgewater area). The every other year brief excursion to Halifax to see some cousins seemed like a metropolis in comparison to where we usually stayed (which only got indoor plumbing when I was born b/c my mother put down an ultimatum to her M-i-L)

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          • Yep. Halifax was the metropolis to those of us in PEI as well. When my mom and I went to Toronto when I was seven, it seemed unimaginably huge and astounding (this was well before I developed my dislike of the place). Like something out of the twilight zone.

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  2. “We found life to indeed be less happy in the cities,” they write. “This was despite higher incomes, lower unemployment rates and higher education in the urban areas.”

    They say “despite”, but they should say “because of”. Cities have far greater economic opportunities, which means that some fraction of the people living in them are they’re simply because they need work and that’s where they can find it (it’s why my parents moved back to Auckland about a decade ago, and they don’t like Auckland). By contrast, small towns tend to consist of people who like small towns.

    This isn’t about cities being bad for people, its about people having diverse preferences and cities having a lot of attractiveness for non-happiness reasons.

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  3. I haven’t been to Montreal or Vancouver yet (*), and I would agree Toronto is very much not my thing.

    But I’ve been to Quebec City (**). And it’s a perfect place (assuming a perfect place has Canadian Winters). It has all that you can find in a big city, but it’s compact enough you can walk across it. And such views of the St. Laurent. Man, it’s a perfect place indeed

    And apparently les Québécois agree. It’s number 5 in the happiness index, way above the average for Canada.

    So perhaps the answer is: cities that are small enough to retain the human scale. Europe is full of them. And there are plenty in the USA too: Raleigh-Durham, Tucson, Austin, come to mind to me (***)

    (*) I’m told Seattle and Vancouver are almost identical but I’m not sure I trust that

    (**) I hate the moniker CITY in calling it Quebec City. Do Anglo Canadians do that too? Or is it a USA thing only?

    (***) Anchorage would make the list, but have you seen those winters?

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    • @j_a Yes, Anglos also call it Quebec City. Much like out of towners call NYC, well, NYC and/or New York City.

      Quebec (the city) is hugely known for being extremely insular, to the point of being xenophobic – whether that comparison is fair or not (the way I saw people treat some visiting Acadians in the 90s suggests to me that it is but that’s both anecdotal and out-of-date), it does lead me to assume that lack-of-people-living-there-because-they-have-to, as James says above, is a major factor in the happiness index. No one (almost no one) thinks “I have to uproot myself and go somewhere I can make a living, I know, I’ll move to Quebec!”

      I’m personally also curious about a sunlight/happiness correlation – that would negatively affect Vancouver for sure, although I think Montreal would be similarly negatively affected.

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      • The Québécois did treat me quite nicely, but that was probably their shock at finding an American tourist that spoke to them in (heavily accented) French. Not that their accent was less heavy ?

        I was with a friend from Toronto in that trip and it was funny how they spoke to him in broken English and failed (or pretended to fail) to understand him, sometimes asking me to translate for them.

        Double funny because my friend speaks perfect French. He was just being as stubborn as the locals. Language Wars, yeah!!

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  4. People might not have been meant to live in cities but many of us don’t seem that happy in countryside either. All sorts of opportunities are less prevalent. People can’t find economic or social opportunities. if they don’t fit in. Maybe humans weren’t meant to be happy.

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    • The limits (and boredom) of rural life has been well documented in the literature of most cultures along the centuries. The idealization of Ruralia is a very American thing.

      That doesn’t mean the (very modern) large metropolis don’t have massive, different, issues. From Heian Japan to Jane Austen’s England, to Chejok’s Russia, people were not thinking of five-plus million people metropolis when they talked about “cities”.

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  5. IIRC, there is a good amount of evidence that shows Ancient Rome had a million people by around 133 BCE. Alexandria hit one million around 30 BCE.

    And several cities in Asia also hit the one million-plus mark. That’s why I hedged and said five-plus million hehe.

    I do a lot of work in São Paulo (13 million) and, believe me, at that size, you don’t have a city, you have a fragmented structure of several superneighborhoods, each one probably over 100k people, that you spend all your life in, You rarely venture away from your superneighboorhood, and your life and the lives of those in other areas of the city is probably completely different.

    Normally, the only people that regularly cross superneighborhood barriers are low income workers that commute in in the early hours and out late at night: cleaning ladies, McDonald’s employees, bus drivers, office messengers, etc.

    I really don’t want to live in São Paulo

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