Great public space 'never ceases to yield happiness,' book says
Happy City, Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, a book by Charles Montgomery, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013, 359 pp., $27 hardcover.
“Great public space is a kind of magical good. It never ceases to yield happiness. It is almost happiness itself.” With that and other encouraging thoughts from Enrique Peñalosa—a dynamic mayor who helped pull Bogota, Colombia, out of its years of chaos—author Charles Montgomery begins this ambitious, deeply researched book. Happy City is no small undertaking; it’s a thorough attempt to explain how a city can increase the well-being of its inhabitants.
Montgomery, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, spent five years “charting the intersection of urban design and the so-called science of happiness.” “The quest,” he says, “led me to some of the world’s greatest and most miserable streets. It led me through the labyrinths of neuroscience and behavioral economics. I found clues in paving stones, on rail lines, and on roller coasters, in architecture, in the stories of strangers who shared their lives with me, and in my own urban experiments.”
The experiments were orchestrated through the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a combination think tank and community center exploring urban life. (An exhibition on the lab and 100 urban trends it has identified is at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through Jan. 5, 2014.)
Montgomery, like Peñalosa, sees the city as a device that can generate happiness. One of the ways a city does this is by making it convenient for people to come together. Relationships—including “lighter relationships,” such as participation in volunteer groups and interchanges with neighbors or with people we see regularly on the street—“can boost feelings of self-esteem, mastery, and physical health,” Montgomery says, citing work by sociologist Peggy Thoits.
Data from the World Values Survey and the Gallup World Poll show that “when it comes to life satisfaction, relationships with other people beat income, hands down,” Montgomery reports. Want numbers on that? Montgomery says University of Zurich economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer have found that “a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office.” (See graph at top).
Distance tends to be the enemy of happiness. The decentralization that’s occurred in North America has made everyday social interaction more expensive—and harder to obtain. “Distance raises the cost of every friendly encounter,” says Montgomery. Partly as a consequence, the average American’s network of relationships has been shrinking. “Almost half the population say they have no one, or just one person, in whom they can confide,” Montgomery says. The country has inadvertently set itself up for unhappiness.
Happy City is clear and enjoyable to read. It abounds with interesting nuances. The most serious flaw is the lack of an index. When you want to look things up, you’ll have to thumb your way through the more than 300 pages of exposition. This is an odd omission, coming from a publisher as serious as Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
What should those who care about cities do to improve them? One way to start is by establishing conditions that allow people to reach most of their frequent destinations on foot. Walking is essential to well-being. It burns fat, leads to beneficial contact with other people, involves us in our surroundings, and limits our contribution to global warming. “The most powerful way to fix a dark mood is simply to take a brisk walk,” Montgomery writes, citing research by California State University psychology professor Robert Thayer.
“Public life begins when we slow down,” Montgomery observes. “This is why reducing velocity has become municipal policy in cities across the United Kingdom and in Copenhagen.” In the Danish capital, traffic signals on some streets have been synchronized to match the pace of a quick bike ride—slightly over 12 mph. In certain areas, Copenhagen has cut the speed limit to 9 mph.
Streets need to be narrower than what you find in most North American communities built in the past 60 years. There should be plenty of welcoming public spaces; Montgomery praises New York City for installing traffic barrels that temporarily demarcate sections of unneeded roadway for use as rudimentary plazas and squares; once people take to the new public spaces—and they usually do—the city invests in a permanent upgrading: better materials, nicer seating.
East Houston Street, New York City: People reported feeling happier along the messy by active street front on top than they did along the orderly but blank facade at bottom. Top photo: Charles Montgomery. Bottom: Alexandra Bolinder-Gibsand. Happy City.
Montgomery argues for planting more trees and interspersing small parks throughout the city, because contact with nature is crucial to well-being. The author is no mystic; he grounds his assertions in empiricism. Studies in Montreal, he reports, “found that elderly people who lived on blocks that had front porches or stoops actually had stronger legs and hands than those living on more barren blocks.” Convivial outdoor spaces make people more active.
The “dispersed city” we developed in the twentieth century “failed to maximize health and happiness,” Montgomery concludes. Surely the time has come for a more compact and connected way of living.
Note: This article was printed in a special issue of Better! Cities & Towns focusing on economics, markets, and walkable places.
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