Happy City Highlights

Ever had one of those doctor’s visits in which your physician questions you in great detail about your family medical history? Trying to tease out the nebulous connections within your DNA to explain certain strengths, weaknesses, and anomalies. And then he uses that connecting thread to help solve something that’s been bothering you? Charles Montgomery does just that in his new book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.


HappyCityMontgomery ties the DNA of place back to its progenitors, and poses the question of how we might use the thread to design happier cities. From the agoras of Athens and Campus Martius of Rome up through North America’s Motordom and Futurama, Montgomery provides a pocket history of city planning via the user experience. Wielding satisfying story-telling with solid urban design analysis and case studies, he hones in on what matters to most of us: happiness. Our own, and those we care about.

Much comes down to counting the cost for the “peace, plumbing, and privacy of the dispersed city” versus the “economic and social devastation caused by the geometries of distance.”

CMontgomeryWe talk about urban happiness extensively here on PlaceShakers, as well as in our Placemaking @Work lecture series. Instead of encapsulating Happy City in yet another glowing review, I encourage you to pick up or download a copy for yourself. In the mean time, here are a few highlights, in the order that I’m likely to weave them into my own work.

“The dispersed city is the most expensive, resource-intense, land-gobbling, polluting way of living ever built.”

“Instability was designed right into the exurbs.”

“By omitting strangers from our lives, sprawl leaches away our ability to deal with radically different perspectives.” – David Brain

“A person with a one 1 hour commute has to earn 40% more to be as satisfied as person who walks to work.” – Stutzer & Frey

“The most important psychological effect of the city is the way in which it moderates our relationships with other people.”

“Just going from being friendless to having one friend or family member to confide in has the same effect on life satisfaction as a tripling of income.”

“The boom decades of the late twentieth century were not accompanied by a boom in happiness. People’s assessment of their own well-being the in the United States pretty much flatlined during that time.”

“One in ten Americans is taking antidepressants.”

“We have reached a rare moment in history where societies and markets appear to be teetering between the status quo and a radical change in the way we live and the way we design our lives in cities.”

“If a poor and broken city such as Bogota can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely it’s possible to apply happy city principles to the wounds of wealthy places.”

“…Crude measures of income to measure human progress. As long as economic numbers grew, economists insisted that life was getting better and people were getting happier. Under this particular analysis, our estimation of well-being is actually inflated by divorces, car crashes, and wars, as long as those calamities produce new spending on goods and services.”

“The city is not merely a repository of pleasures. It is the stage on which we fight our battles, where we act out the drama of our own lives.”

“The messages encoded in architecture can foster a sense of mastery or helplessness. The good city should be measured not only by its distractions and amenities but also by how it affects this everyday drama of survival, work, and meaning.”

“Citizens of the country where people trust their neighbors, strangers, and even their government the most – the Danes – consistently come out on or near the top of happiness polls.”

“As the oxytocin studies illustrate, our brains reward us for working well together. At the same time, the drive by each of us to promote our own interests creates a dynamism and wealth that can overflow through the city. We all embody the tension between selfishness and altruism.”

“It is not certain that we can all make the leap to universal empathy, but what is clear is this: as a social project, the city challenges us not just to live together but to thrive together, by understanding that our fate is a shared one.”

“Investing in a detached home on the urban edge is like gambling on oil futures and global geopolitics.”

“The key message from happiness science is that absolutely nothing matters more than our relationships with other people.”

“The more connected we are with family and community, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and depression.”

“The road was a market, a playground, a park, and yes, it was a thoroughfare, but there were no traffic lights, painted lanes, or zebra crossings.”

Rejecting both central cities as they exist today along with the sprawl edge, Montgomery suggests we redesign both after having identified “the unseen systems that influence our health and control our behavior” while understanding “the psychology by which all of us comprehend the urban world and make decisions about our place in it.”

If that’s not enough to interest you, conclusions from others:

“In the final analysis, Montgomery has done a service by writing an essential guidebook to the brightest manifestations of urban felicity; it’s one that belongs on every city-dweller’s bookshelf.” – National Post

“On balance, Happy City is a nice primer on the latest ideas and best practices for making cities serve everyone. It orients the reader toward what makes a community work, not what its individuals want for themselves.” – Next City

“Charles Montgomery looks for answers at the intersection of urban design and the new science of happiness. In psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, and in cityscapes from Disneyland to Dubai, he explores the link between the ways we design our cities and the ways we think, feel, and act. His work demonstrates how each of us can change our own lives by changing our relationship with the cities we inhabit.” – Lavin

If you’d like to dive more deeply into this conversation, I recommend the Healthy Places Track at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 22nd annual congress taking place in Buffalo, New York, June 4-7, 2014. More info at www.cnu22.org. See you there!

Hazel Borys

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