This International Day of Happiness on 20 March reminds us that life is happier when we’re together. It urges us to focus on what we have in common, rather than on what divides us.
One thing that has the power to bring us closer together is art. Art can also bring us closer to nature, helping to blur the boundaries between the “concrete jungles” of our cities and outside spaces.
This International Day of Happiness we sought inspiration, especially among young people, in public urban art. Despite being drawn to cities for a myriad of reasons, for many of us, happiness is closely tied with our proximity to nature and green spaces. Humanity evolved in close connection with nature, and a need for its presence is woven deeply into our consciousness.
“Connecting to our living environment through enjoying public art in urban spaces can change how we understand the world, help us relax and reduce stress and anxiety, and provide memorable experiences,” said Garrette Clark, UN Environment’s Sustainable Lifestyles Programme Officer.
“Sustainable living and lifestyles are about reducing negative environmental impacts as well as spending more time and resources on the experiences that add value to our lives.”
Public urban art can bring us closer to nature. Photo by Georgina Avlonitis
One example is Conservation Conversation Corners, in Johannesburg, South Africa and Livingstone, Zambia. This project involves four young artists—South African upcycler Heath Nash, Zambian sculptor Owen Shikabeta, Zambian painter Mwamba Chikwemba and South African installation artist Mbali Dhlamini.
Using mural paintings, public participation and sculpture, they visually and physically transform urban public spaces to reconnect their users with nature.
These artists observed a link between spending time in these spaces and a feeling of relaxation, safeness and peace of mind. Some stated that the only time they really felt safe and happy in these—and other—cities was when they felt connected with nature.
Twenty-eight-year-old Mbali Dhlamini observed: “As a woman in Jozi, you always feel like you need to keep eyes at the back of your head. We stay on our guards and alert at all times, whether walking or driving in the city, because of the crime here. How wonderful it would be to feel free and at peace. Nature has that. Nature gives us that. We need to access it and conserve it more in our towns and cities.”
Artists observe a link between spending time in these spaces and a feeling of relaxation, safeness and peace of mind. Photo by Georgina Avlonitis
Public art like this is playing an important role in shaping urban neighbourhoods, boosting a sense of community, and bringing people together.
In 2008, for the first time more people lived in urban areas than in rural ones. Urbanization is occurring everywhere and at unprecedented speed—especially in Africa. Urban populations in Africa are expected to triple in the next 50 years, and urban space is expected to increase by more than 700 per cent between 2000 and 2030.
Reflecting on how we can better bring nature into ever-expanding urban spaces, public art can help us provide access to green spaces in cities as a potential source of happiness.
A growing number of scientific studies demonstrate the power of nature to positively affect our health, well-being and happiness, and in 2017, National Geographic identified the greening of urban areas as one of the top five aspects shaping the future of cities.
Isabel Wetzel, Associate Human Settlements Officer at UN-Habitat and Greener Cities Partnership liaison between UN Environment and UN-Habitat, added: “The beneficial relationship between nature and happiness in urban areas is apparent – and public art can provide a beautiful channel to express it.
Nature can positively affect our health, well-being and happiness. Photo by Georgina Avlonitis
“Art has the power to connect people from different backgrounds and generations, and green public spaces have a positive impact on the health of the residents.
“Highlighting the need for nature restoration and conservation of our green and blue ecosystems in urban areas through public art is a powerful way to reconnect people, particularly young people, with the natural world.”
So, if you, your family and your friends are feeling unhappy in your city—seek urban green spaces, and if they don’t exist yet, create them!
Are you already creating green spaces in your city and want to make an even bigger difference in 2019? Apply to be a Young Champion of the Earth—there are only two weeks left until applications close on 31 March! The Young Champions of the Earth prize is powered by Covestro.