Q & A with Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City, on the connection between urban design and happiness

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    "If you build a city for pedestrians, for people, then you can actually create a more social city, a more connected city, and a happier city." (Image courtesy of Charles Montgomery)

    Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design takes a look at the intersection of urban planning and happiness.

    Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design is about the intersection of urban planning and happiness. Keystone Crossroad’s Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with the Vancouver author about long commutes, Walmart, and the importance of social interactions.

    Your book Happy City essentially combines the study of happiness and urban design. What got you interested in writing this book?

    You know, I took a bike ride through the Colombian capital of Bogota—which was one of the unhappiest cities in the world—a few years ago with the mayor who had used his term, in his words, to transform the city in the name of happiness. He used his very short three-year term to change infrastructure in the city, to give all the best and fastest roads—take them from cars and give them to a bus rapid transit system. He built bike lanes. He built schools. He built parks. And all of this, he insisted, would make his city happier.I left the city kind of thrilled with these ideas but also skeptical. I was a journalist and I thought, “Well, really? Can the city really be a machine for happiness? And what is happiness, anyway?” So I basically became obsessed with the idea and pursued it for the next better part of a decade.

    From the fact that you have this book out called Happy City, it seems like you did find some evidence to support this idea that the environment you choose to live in can contribute to your emotional well-being.

    Absolutely, absolutely. I looked into neuroscience, behavioral economics, public health, psychology and I found that there is a strong link between the shape and systems of our cities and the ways we feel, the ways we move, and the ways we treat other people.

    You get into the nitty-gritty of happiness in the book. And you cite studies that, for example, say the longer commute you have, the more you’re unhappy. Or the perfect size of yard to foster community is 10.6 feet deep. Or that city blocks with blank windows rather than lively storefronts actually bring people down.

    Well, it’s… these things are true. We’re only just beginning to discover these correlations and connections between urban forms and emotions. You know for the longest time, I’d say close to a hundred years, the people who shaped our cities tended to look at the movement of cars only. And they measured how many cars could fit in a road, how fast they could go, and then they tried to predict into the future how much more traffic there would be. Unfortunately, their predictions were self-fulfilling prophecies. If you build the road space, the cars come. But if you build a city for pedestrians, for people, then you can actually create a more social city, a more connected city, and a happier city.  And this is now happening in cities around the world. It’s remarkable to see—cities rich and poor—turning away from total dependency on cars, which is a very expensive and unhealthy way to live, to more focus on connected neighborhoods where people have an ability to walk or bike to where they’re going and meet in the street.

    One thing that I picked up is that if there’s an enemy to happiness, it’s dispersion. Or what we might think of as sprawl. You say this is a bad for the environment but also bad for our emotional well-being.

    What studies have found is that in American cities—first of all, the longer people’s commutes, the less likely they are to know and trust their neighbors and to be able to pick up and activate some of the friendships they have, because their friends are so far away. On the other hand, we’re seeing that the more people depend on cars to get around, to get to work or whatever, the less people in that neighborhood are likely to know their neighbors, to trust their neighbors, to volunteer, to join sports groups, to vote. So what’s happening is that dispersal is actually sucking away our social time. And there’s no more powerful ingredient to human happiness than strong, positive social relationships.

    And this idea of strong social relationships is not just friendships with, you know, your relatives or your two best friends. It’s this idea of friendly interactions with even strangers. So is an answer maybe the existence of mingle-friendly public spaces?

    That can help, that can help. So we know there’s a strong correlation between social trust and happiness. How can we build a city of more sociability and more trust? There are various ways to do it. Yes, it’s important that we have comfortable, beautiful places to mingle in public. But you know, the public plaza alone won’t do it. The city is a complex system. So if you push your work place and your school and your home too far apart, then you’ll spend all your time in your vehicle moving quickly across the city. So the more cities can reconnect, mix uses in place, and create potential for walkability and bikeability, the more opportunities we have for positive interaction.

    So our project, Keystone Crossroads, focuses on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities, a lot of which have to do with financial difficulties. What should urban planners and concerned citizens be pushing for if finances are tight?

    One of the main things that American cities need to start acknowledging is that mixed use development in city cores or connected neighborhoods produce twenty times the tax revenue per acre and ten times the number of jobs per acre than development out on the edge. So if you’ve got Walmart coming to town and saying, “Hey, we will provide jobs for you, we’ll provide tax revenue for you. Let us build at the edge of your city,” you need to be pushing Walmart or any other retailer or business to situate in the central city. You need to be enabling mixed use. You need to be providing more freedom for homeowners in those inner suburbs, for example, to do what they want with their land. In my city, everybody who owns a single-family home is allowed to turn their basement into a legal rental suite and their backyard garage into a laneway house. Three residences per property. Suddenly, you have a more vibrant neighborhood, you’re paying more taxes, and you have more people on the streets to support local business. Mix it up.

    On a related note, a recent study names Pa. cities among the most unhappy. 

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