To paraphrase Monty Python, “Nobody expects [joy and] the Spanish Inquisition [in the built environment].” But while confusion may ensue when meeting a trio of English comedians dressed in period garb, when we experience joy in the city, our communities grow closer in subtle yet profound ways. The presence or absence of joy in a place reflects the strength of its people and culture. Joy is, in short, a force for building an engaged and caring community.
When you find something in the streetscape that unexpectedly gives you joy, a link is formed between you and its creator. Unconsciously you know that someone — a group or individual — took time and energy to build something that they hoped would give you a reason to pause and smile. In that instant, the relationship that is forged is both indirect and personal — you may not know the creator, but you are experiencing exactly what was hoped for in that place and moment. That they cared enough about you, a stranger, to make the effort is an amazing gift.
Joy is a powerful emotion that connects people to their environment and each other. As you move about the city and encounter something that gives you joy, not only do you connect with its creator; you are likely to recount the moment to family, friends and even strangers. This helps create the shared experience that a community needs.
Projects incorporating joy are often conceptually simple, honest and genuine. Many times they feel simultaneously slightly out of place yet completely appropriate, and they are accessible and democratic in order to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. While some works may be regarded as kitschy, folksy or too clever by half, their only intent is to make people smile — and you can’t fault anyone for that. In Vancouver, BC, works which aim to create joy range from formal and complex projects like public art installations and community parks, to small and partially hidden guerilla gardens — bits of City land that have been planted and tended by enthusiastic community gardeners and subsequently ignored by municipal crews. Large works like Giant — a massive street mural painted on industrial silos at Ocean Concrete’s Granville Island plant — and Douglas Coupland’s Gumhead — a statue that kids were encouraged to stick chewing gum on — have brought smiles to thousands of people. Balancing-rock statues often spring up along the Stanley Park Seawall to the delight of locals and tourists, while cherry trees form a pink canopy over city streets to thrill photographers during the annual Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival. Elsewhere, a fried egg painted in the middle of an intersection doesn’t raise anyone’s cholesterol level during their morning commute, while walkers can get reading material from street-side book exchanges. Regarding architecture, unannounced features can surprise and delight — for instance, responsive lighting or acoustic sweet spots. And fun and memorable iconography and signage aren’t just for children’s care facilities — they can be used in a parkade to guide lost drivers back to their cars. The possibilities for creating positive, memorable experiences are limited only by imagination.
When joy is encouraged through civic policies and programs, or included in public and private projects, the result is a more personable, friendly and livable city. Joy inspires and encourages people to be participatory, not passive. The outcome of creating and experiencing joy is a strong sense of place and a stronger community. Given the pace of societal and technological change, when it’s hard to comprehend the constant upheaval of life, it says a great deal about a community when its members strive to improve the lives of everyone in it.