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‘Infrastructure for the human spirit': The Joy Experiments unveils a new hope for urban design

"The Joy Experiments" will be published in May 2024

Imagine if cities were designed with fostering the human experience as their primary focus.

That’s the question behind Scott Higgins and Paul Kalbfleisch’s “The Joy Experiments,” being published by Dundurn Press in May.

Kalbfleisch and Higgins are two of the creatives behind some of the most unique and talked-about urban spaces in Ontario’s fast-growing growing Waterloo Region.

Higgins is the CEO of HIP Developments, who has partnered with Kalbfleisch, a Waterloo-based creative consultant, on several city-building projects in Canada.

Now, they’re putting some of their ideas to paper. Initially it started out as a manifesto on designing a great city, Kalbfleisch says. But manifestos can sound rather cliche - kind of like corporate poetry. They were inspired by Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago who wrote a book about his eight years in office.

The end result – a book called The Joy Experiments – is a “discussion - with multiple entry points of information,” Kalbfleisch says, about what elements worked for their projects, and some ideas that didn’t quite pan out. It’s all about generating a conversation about what makes great cities work, beyond its roads, sewers and pipelines.

He calls that key ingredient “infrastructure for the human spirit.”

And it comes at an opportune moment in Canadian history.

“When you look at what’s going on around us, it’s clear that society is divided,” Kalbfleisch says. “And we can definitely design cities that are capable of healing that divide.”

“We can start by helping people deal with the loneliness, the isolation and the distrust that exist at epidemic proportions today.”

Why Joy?

There’s a few different groups in most cities that have a stake in how the city is planned and built, Kalbfleisch says. One segment supports a renewed approach to urban design wholeheartedly.

Another group prefers not to see a great amount of change, and are typically resistant to any serious discussions around bike lanes or greenways.

A third group, Kalbfleisch says, is the great majority of people in and around cities who have yet to articulate their position because they think cities just are what they are.. The book, he says, hopes to provide them with new language – along with new perspectives – about how things could work better and their relationship to other citizens.

“When it comes to designing our cities, people need a different way of talking,” Kalbfleisch says. “They need language that can be commonly held between the various audiences and their various opinions.”

“It's one of the reasons why we use the word ‘joy.’ Who's going to line up and say, ‘No, I don't want more joy?’”

The Joy Experiments draws attention to how people interact with one another in the real world: our neighbourhoods, transportation systems and our shared spaces like parks. It also challenges our concept of the word “community”.

Even if they go unnoticed, those daily public connections form a bond between residents. Common goals and stories told about the city, about ourselves. The book suggests that we need more of these connections. Traditionally parks were designed for citizens to retreat from the bustle of urban life, but today’s society is deeply withdrawn and isolated. We need public spaces that are purpose built for engagement; places where we all learn to play with strangers.

And since humans are social by nature, any disruption to that connection can have serious effects on us, collectively.

That includes the divisions – for better or worse – sowed by technology, specifically the depression and anxiety brought on by time spent in the hyper-tribal world of social media.

“The tool to counter the virtual world is our cities,” Kalbfleisch says. “It's not nations, it's not national governments. It's not what happens in Davos, Switzerland.”

“Cities have the scale to impact our lives, profoundly, and they have the scale to impact the world. If you start by changing cities, you can have some hope that you can change the world.”

“The Joy Experiments” isn’t the first book to discuss the world’s current issues – how social media tends to isolate, rather than connect. But it does provide some thinking points on how to bring people back together.

“This is a book about our journey,” Kalbfleisch says. “It’s a discussion around the things we experimented with and what we learned. But the book was also designed to allow you to take your own journey; connect dots in your own way and draw your own conclusions.

“Waterloo Region is one of those mid-sized metropolices that are really poised to take up the challenge, and they have the most to benefit from this,” Kalbfleisch says. “Similar to Austin, Texas, a very interesting city.”

“Bristol, in England, is an easy one to point to, and certainly Copenhagen. These are the cities that really understand that their social and economic prosperity lies with how well they embrace the human spirit and how they embrace a certain amount of serendipity, rather than efficiency in their cities.”

When this leg of his journey is done, Kalbfleisch says, he hopes that readers can find a way to appreciate diverse points of view about the communities we live in, and also provide tools to collaborate.

“We first need to redesign ‘we,’” Kalbfleisch says, “Because if we can't find a way of uniting and collaborating, we're never going to be able to tackle the bigger things like homelessness, addictions and climate change.”

“For me, I think this is the issue of our times.”

Learn more about The Joy Experiments online here.