Not too close, not too far: urbanisation and life satisfaction along the urban hierarchy

Not too close, not too far: urbanisation and life satisfaction along the urban hierarchy


Written by:

Camilla Lenzi and Giovanni Perucca

First Published:

09 Nov 2020, 5:01 am


Not too close, not too far: urbanisation and life satisfaction along the urban hierarchy



Are large cities unhappy places? This is the conclusion of most of the studies on the relationship between urbanisation and individuals’ life satisfaction. At least in developed countries, people living in the largest cities tend to be less happy, keeping constant all other characteristics, than those living in smaller towns.


While there is consensus around this empirical finding, less is known about its causes. Indeed, this result may sound counterintuitive. Large cities provide their inhabitants with the broadest variety of jobs, amenities and services, so why should people be less satisfied compared with individuals with no access to these benefits of urbanisation?


The most common interpretation of this paradox claims that, above a certain city size, urbanisation costs overcome the benefits, which translates into a negative effect on subjective wellbeing. In other words, in large cities, the individuals’ perception of the typical disadvantages of urbanisation, like pollution, congestion and cost of living,  negate the advantages of living in an urban location. This hypothesis led to a narrative where the urban and rural environments are emblems of, respectively, unhappy and happy places.


This dualism, however, leaves a big part of the story unexplained. The effects of urbanisation are not constrained within the city boundaries. Rather, they spread to the neighbouring areas: millions of people commute daily   to take advantage of the educational, professional and commercial facilities available in cities but not in their town of residence. At the same time, the possibility of indirectly exploiting these urbanisation benefits is bound by an important factor: physical distance. Increasing distance from cities  increases the costs of  utilising the advantages typical of an urban location.


These considerations add an important ingredient to the debate on urbanisation and life satisfaction. In fact, it is not true that rural inhabitants have no access to the  benefits of urbanisation. Rather, they may enjoy them, depending on the distance between their place of residence and the closest city.


Our paper deals with this issue. Using survey data, we classified individuals living in Europe according to the population size of their place of residence, assuming that the variety of urban facilities increases with city size. After calculating the travel time distance to the closest large city, we tested the hypothesis that distance from large cities (i.e. those providing goods and services not available in the town of residence) has a negative effect on individuals’ life satisfaction.


Our findings confirm this hypothesis. This allows reframing the answer to the question reported at the beginning of this post. Large cities are unhappy places only when compared with rural locations with a high physical accessibility to urban areas. On the other hand, the urban-rural divide in life satisfaction cancels out, or even reverses, when rurality is associated with a peripheral location. In the paper, we discuss in detail how our results contribute to a reconsideration of the mechanisms through which urbanisation affects subjective wellbeing.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.