In Denmark, there is a word that captures the feeling you get from certain spaces: hygge (pronounced hooga). The closest English equivalent would be coziness, or comfort. Think of being in front of a stone fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate on a cold January evening… après ski. What feeling does this leave you with?
Feelings of comfort and coziness are sacred ideals in our societies, and important to how we organize space. Coziness is a feeling we should lean into as we contemplate how cities—especially small cities like those in New Brunswick—are changing.
Fredericton should redesign its urban spaces with the Danish notion of hygge in mind. Rather than focusing strictly on financial returns, which were especially important to urban planning in the mid-20th century, we should embrace other metrics for thinking about urban space.
Here, I do not have space to suggest what these metrics might be, only to suggest that they are needed. Think of it as the urban planning equivalent of baseball’s sabermetrics, the statistical revolution that has transformed the way teams are managed.
By changing how you measure success, it is possible to do things more successfully than you have in the past, as the 2002 Oakland Athletics demonstrated.
There are good reasons for hygge to become more central to our measure of success in urban planning, since feelings of well-being make us happy, not how much tax revenue we are contributing to our city (which often makes us miserable).
Denmark, it is worth noting, consistently ranks as the happiest country in the world, and hygge has something to do with it.
Where are our cozy places in Fredericton? What are the spaces that we enjoy spending time in, our ‘happy places’? For the most part, Canada’s weather, coupled with North America’s industrial traditions of mass-produced detached housing, has helped produce a suburban landscape where coziness is culturally associated with home, and the private places of the household.
At home, most of us have our cozy spots, where a spirit, hygge, wraps itself around us, leaving us with a warm feeling of being cared for.
But public spaces are just as capable of being comfy, and building those spaces so is important to the livability of cities, just as it is to the livability of our homes.
Demographic and economic shifts will put increased pressure on small sized Canadian cities to embrace concepts of hygge in urban planning because the importance of private spaces in post-war suburban homes is declining—we just don’t spend that much time there anymore, and when we do, our households are very different from the ones our parents and grandparents had.
Private, suburban homes were designed for family sizes comparatively larger than those of contemporary Canadian families, which have shrunk in size considerably since the 1970s. Since hygge is a social feeling, reliant on being in places with other people, the coziness that used to be provided by the family home may be falling in importance for many people.
Declining birth rates are due in part to changes in gender roles that place more importance on work and careers as the focal point of life projects. The failure to adequately address these changes has left us with a labour market perfectly suited for middle class men from the 1950s. Except that today, relatively few households can depend on full time homemakers—and very few of us are or want to live like middle class men from the 1950s (so what’s up with our labour market?).
As a result, households are increasingly busy places, stressful places, and lonely places, especially for young adults who are delaying decisions about starting a family (if they decide to start a family at all). For many people living alone—expected to become the most common household type in Canada by the 2020s—the suburbs are social death. And while there is contradictory data about where older Canadians are relocating, there is greater clarity about the participation of baby boomers in the growing condo market—and most condos are built in downtown neighbourhoods (though affordability is a major factor).
In light of this shift, the footprint of private coziness is getting smaller, not just spatially, but also in terms of time. Smaller family sizes and the increase in time spent in paid employment have arguably reduced the importance of the household to our overall feelings of cozy well-being.
Instead, we are turning to our public spaces to deliver a hygge quotient larger than it has in the past.
Cities like Fredericton should focus on creating great urban spaces that incorporate this Danish concept. Doing so would not only spawn places that have greater meaning and feeling to them than some of the spaces we currently have, but moreover are important to small cities that are now being challenged with demographic collapse.
While not the purpose of hygge, fostering the creation of ‘cozy’ spaces that provide people with a sense of well-being and care can be an important competitiveness issue for small cities like those in New Brunswick, which need to find new ways to attract talented workforces, and create jobs.
Hygge is as important to small market cities like Fredericton as sabermetrics are to small market baseball towns like Oakland. If you want to win, you have to stop trying to compete with North York and start trying to be what you already are: a great little place.
Hygge is not measured by the traditional urban financial metrics of internal rate of return, or tax revenue per square foot. It is measured by traditions of place making. And it is possible to develop statistics and other data that would enable us to verify its effectiveness.
In Fredericton, our traditions of place making are private. We justifiably have a proud tradition of making our homes cozy, accommodating, comfortable.
We should draw on this tradition to think about our public, urban spaces as well, which are just as important as our living rooms, and where increasingly, we want to spend more time, living with others.
Matthew Hayes is Associate Professor of Sociology at St. Thomas University and a former mayoral candidate.