Why Urban Spaces Make You “Happy”

Despite losing an Academy Award to the song “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen, the undisputed song of Spring 2014 has been “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. The song not only topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for ten straight weeks, but also was Number 1 on five other US and 33 foreign charts.

The song has been a hit because the music and lyrics perfectly express an infectious sense of joy. It’s hard not to smile when you hear it. The lyrics are pretty straightforward, but some people have been puzzled about the start of the chorus:

Because Im happy,
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

When someone asked Williams on Twitter “why is a room without a roof happy?”, he responded that, “…It is metaphorical for one’s space w/out limit…”

As an urban planner, the phrase “room without a roof” makes me think about the way that buildings, trees, and other features can create the feeling of an outdoor room in a range of urban settings. Examples of outdoor rooms include a four lane commercial street lined with two and three story buildings, a small pedestrian plaza or park surrounded by trees and buildings, and a residential street lined by mature, tall trees.

A residential street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A residential street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

We often feel a sense of comfort and enclosure in these outdoor rooms. Trees and buildings can reduce wind and provide sun on cold days and shade on hot days. These spaces also play to the characteristics of the human eye by:

  • Emphasizing vertical features. Our vision tends to focus on vertical features, such as tree trunks, columns, building edges, doors, and windows, because these are typically the points of highest contrast. Planning scholar Kevin Lynch (1962) wrote that, “vertical features or changes take on exaggerated importance” in a world that is primarily horizontal.
  • Limiting our focus. Outdoor rooms tend to have a small size and buildings and trees tall enough to block views of surrounding areas, providing a feeling of enclosure and undisturbed focus on what is happening within the space. Researchers have examined the ratio of building height to street width needed to provide this sense of enclosure. Many have settled on a ratio of at least one foot of building height on each side for every four feet of street width (such as 30 foot high buildings on a 120 foot wide street)  (Jacobs 1993; Putra and Yang 2005), though this ratio does not necessarily explain the appeal of larger public spaces.
  • Facilitating people watching.   Some urban design researchers have used the distance at which a person can typically recognize another person (70-80 feet) and recognize facial expressions (40-50 feet) as a good basis for whether a space is appropriately scaled for people rather than automobiles (Alexander 1977; Blumenfeld 1953; Lynch 1962).   Good urban spaces tend to keep people close enough together to facilitate interaction.

When you are out at your favorite urban outdoor place, think about whether the space includes these characteristics. Pharrell Williams may have intended to describe a metaphorical “room without a roof” when he wrote the lyrics to “Happy”, but outdoor rooms are very real and can definitely make you happy.



Alexander, Christopher, et al. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Blumenfeld, Hans. 1953. Scale in civic design. Town Planning Review. 24 April, pp. 35–46.
Jacobs, Allan. 1993. Great Streets. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Lynch, Kevin. 1962. Site Planning. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Putra, Simon and Perry Yang. 2005. Analysing mental geography of residential environment in Singapore using GIS-based 3D visibility analysis. International conference “Doing, thinking, feeling home: the mental geography of residential environments”. Delft, The Netherlands. October 14-15.

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