How to Design a Happier City

Charles Montgomery's new book finds the intersection of urban policy and well-being.

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Charles Montgomery begins his new book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, on a bicycle ride in Bogota, Colombia, with former mayor Enrique Peñalosa. While in office, Peñalosa implemented a number of policies quite progressive for that time and place. He scrapped plans for highways through the city. He built hundreds of miles of bike lanes. He made room for parks and pedestrian plazas.

Peñalosa's goal, explains Montgomery, was to make Bogotans happier. Montgomery's goal with Happy City is equally ambitious: to document whether urban policy and design can really influence well-being.

"For years, urban designers and architects have claimed happiness as their goal," Montgomery says. "And yet none of the claims have been supported by empirical evidence. Which isn't to say they're not right. It's just to say that we don't know. That we haven't known."

In this spirit of empirical discovery, Montgomery takes readers around the world in search of the places where urban design has (and has not) improved quality-of-life. He also leads us into the laboratories of behavioral scientists measuring which mindsets make happiness easier (or harder) to achieve. The result is a six-part "recipe" for urban happiness — challenging cities to promote joy, health, freedom, resilience, equity, and social connections.

"Serious people have thought a lot about these issues," says Montgomery. "What I hoped to do with the book was to draw their thinking, some of their activism, and some of their research together into a coherent narrative."

One of the big messages in the book is that a livable city is a happy one.

I think they're almost synonymous. But I think the bigger point is that there are fear mongers out there who tell us that if we want to address the great challenges of our age — and I'm talking about climate change, resource scarcity, population — then we all have to put on a hair shirt. That we'll be dooming ourselves to years of deprivation. And they're wrong. At least when it comes to city-making.

So the happy city, the low-carbon city, the green city, the city that will save us — they're all the same place.

You point out a number of cognitive biases that explain the attraction to sprawl: things like the commuter paradox, in which people mistakenly think money will make up for a long drive to work. What can we do about these tendencies that seem built into our behavior?

We pay too much attention to rewards we can see — like you mentioned, the house, the car — and too little the complex systems that shape our experiences. When it's experiences that matter the most.

I think the most basic piece of advice is we'll all be better off if we understand that happiness is driven more by experience than things. If we build cities and if we make individual choices with that in mind, we may be able to nudge ourselves to design for experiences and human relationships, as opposed to systems that just enable more infrastructure.

I was struck by how many small things a city can do to improve well-being. Putting in a small park. Carving out a pedestrian plaza.

Yes, there is tremendous potential for intervention at the neighborhood level to enrich our lives. I'm thinking of the efforts of city repair in Portland. The idea is that back in the 90s, a bunch of neighbors marched out and turned their intersection into a piazza. It was such an ordeal to bring neighbors together, to network, to work together, to fight city hall, to build something new — the process itself created powerful new bonds of friendship and trust and conviviality.

You praise mixed-use, little streetcar towns as a very satisfying social arrangement. What works so well about that design?

I would say this is where Vancouver has something to teach the world, particularly American cities. Our streetcar neighborhoods — even without streetcars — are becoming increasingly vibrant and dense and fun without resorting to towers. So when people think of Vancouver, they think of our vertical downtown. But our streetcar neighborhoods have accommodated just as many new residents in these past couple decades.

They've done it through gentle densification. More mixed-use low-rises along the arterials. I guess what's more notable is almost every house in neighborhood legally has the right to have a basement suite and a backyard rental cottage. That's three residences on every lot. You're probably getting 10 times the density per acre as you would in a typical American suburb. But it doesn't feel crowded.

What elements would you select from various cities if you were going to build some kind of super happy city?

If you think of the social function of the happy city, I think Copenhagen succeeds. A great example is when the traffic planners realized that cyclists were having a hard time chatting on their way to work, so they made double-wide lanes.

I think that the happy city, it's actually market rational, and a great example is in Vauban, in Germany. It's an experimental suburb of Freiberg. They internalized the external costs associated with car ownership. If you own a car in Vauban, you have to buy a parking spot at the edge of a village in a beautiful garage. Not only do many residents save money, but their days are infused with these convivial experiences of local walking.

I was deeply moved by my experience in Davis, California. Where on N Street, neighbors just pulled down all their fences and agreed to share a super yard. They found it so spacious that they all applied and got the right to add more units to their homes, so more people could live there.

Top image: littleny /Shutterstock.com

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