Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

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Happy City

Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

By Charles Montgomery
Penguin, 2015 321 pages, Paperback, $18.00

Reviewed by NANCY

We have the potential to live better than we have ever lived before, but we’re not. In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery explores how the city environment negatively affects us – individually and collectively – and what can be done to change this.

Montgomery researched and travelled the world looking for answers. He met with – and studied the works of – psychologists, architects, city planners, politicians, landscape architects, brain scientists, happiness economists and grassroots activists to discover how our cities shape us.

Though the industrial revolution created an unhealthy city, the solution was just as bad. Suburban living became the ideal. With mass production of cars and the availability of cheap energy, more people could afford to live further from the city centre. Long commutes have led to what is now labelled an obesogenic lifestyle. The physical effects of sprawl are so measurable that scientists can determine the length of your commute by how much extra weight you carry. City design can even affect how long you will live.

Montgomery writes that there is “a direct relationship between well-being and leisure time. The more people hung out with family and friends in any particular day, the more happiness and enjoyment they reported, and the less stress and worry.” Ideally, we benefit from six or seven hours of socializing per day and we can’t rely only on our family and close friends for a sense of connectedness. We need what Montgomery refers to as “partial engagement”: a chat with a fellow shopper while waiting to make a purchase, exchanging greetings with people at the bus stop, or dissecting the latest Jets game while waiting in line to get a cup of coffee. Fleeting moments spent with strangers and acquaintances give us a sense of connection.

Since the time of Aristotle and Socrates, human happiness has been studied. We need conviviality. We need accessible public green spaces. We need urban diversity. What we have are cities chopped up into areas zoned for single use, which necessitates owning a vehicle. Our cities are no longer designed for people; they are designed for automobiles. Instead of developing their own planning codes, most cities opted into a generic code. The plan benefitted developers, manufacturers of household goods and the auto industry.

Reading Montgomery’s book, what was especially enlightening and disturbing to me was the fact that government regulations and subsidies had a hidden agenda that favoured a certain percentage of the population. Urban sprawl enabled the spread, indirectly or directly of racism, elitism, sexism and ageism.

We are constantly responding to our environment, consciously and unconsciously. When we feel safe and happy, we trust other people and treat them better. When everyone feels more hope, happiness and respect, crime rates fall. Our external circumstances may not change, but if our perception does, we respond accordingly. Our behaviour isn’t always the result of a logical process where thoughts and actions are based on reality. For example, riding an ascending escalator makes us more helpful and generous. 

The environmental effect of urban green space on people is stunning. Exposure to nature positively affects our well-being, influences our behaviour and benefits society. Without green space, people are psychologically fatigued, rude, unable to cope, short-tempered, violent and verbally harsh. Police records show a lack of greenery is linked to higher crime rates. Most significantly, violent crimes – including assault and battery, robbery and murder –  are higher in areas lacking green space.

In theory, the city is a place where every citizen contributes and benefits. For decades, American cities have been remiss in making the urban experience positive for the greatest number of people. Land developers and those with a vested interest in sprawling cities full of single family dwellings have pushed the idea that getting away from the city centre is the ideal lifestyle. When subdivisions are created, developers provide the city with a large, one time financial boost. But the city is then left with the task of factoring into their annual budget the money to provide services and maintain the infrastructure for these far-flung communities. 

When the bulk of public funds go into supporting infrastructure for cars, the inner city and its residents are neglected and public services lack financial support. Meanwhile, the promise of freedom in the suburbs creates a huge burden for those who buy into it. Urban sprawl actually makes everyone sicker, poorer and deeply unhappy. Car-related costs account for approximately 20 percent of a person’s income. Living in the suburbs, you don’t just buy a car if you want one, you buy one because you have no choice. Zoning for single use extends the distance one must travel to get to amenities. People become vehicle dependent and time strapped. With less time and energy, suburbanites are less likely to pay attention to civic politics, do surveys, attend town hall meetings or vote.

Humans will make illogical and bad choices sometimes. Many opt into a lifestyle that’s unhealthy. They might want to be happier, but even positive change is stressful. A psychological and large financial commitment to the suburban myth keeps people locked into maintaining the status quo. People will usually only make changes if there is an obvious personal benefit to them. Soaring energy costs may be the necessary catalyst.

It was hard to remain positive while reading the first few chapters of this book. When Montgomery switched from explaining problems to outlining solutions, I got excited. Individuals, groups and communities are transforming their cities and neighbourhoods. We can change. There is hope. It takes vision, coordinated effort and a willingness to embrace change. Montgomery writes that we need to redesign city spaces with an awareness of “how places, crowds, views, architecture, and ways of moving influence the way we feel. We need to identify the unseen systems that influence our health and control our behaviour. Most of all, we need to understand the psychology by which all of us comprehend the urban world and make decisions about our place in it.”

Solutions include: incorporating common areas into neighbourhoods; alternative transportation options; a more user friendly city centre that encourages partial engagement; diversity of dwellings, dwellers and businesses; and building up, not out.

A new mobility model is essential. In Paris, citizens use the same card to ride the metro, take buses and rent bikes and cars. In other cities, mobile diversity is being facilitated with bigger bike lanes. Some cities have transformed whole streets into pedestrian corridors. In Bogotá, Columbia, 96.5 kilometres of city roads are devoted to public use for cycling, walking, running and in-line skating every Sunday. In New York, traffic is permanently blocked around Times Square. Reclaim the streets and the whole city dynamic changes. Streets that are more diverse result in less stress for people and are better for the environment.

Maintaining central services encourages their use. Studies show that buses need to arrive at a stop every 15 minutes in order for people to be motivated to use them. And having easy access to information about when a bus will arrive lowers stress and increases ridership. It’s not about getting rid of cars, it’s about making other ways of getting around viable. A more equal transportation system makes citizens happier as they are freed from the cost of a car. People make different choices when they have transportation options that really give them the freedom to choose. The resulting drop in carbon emissions is good for the planet and good for everyone’s health.

“Cities should strive to embrace complexity, not just in transportation systems but in human experience,” Montgomery writes. There isn’t a perfect neighbourhood design to be copied. “We all have our own tolerance for crowding or quietude, our own thirst for novelty or privacy or music or gardening, and our own complex associations with spaces, scents, and memories.” In Vancouver, urban diversity is facilitated by building condominiums on four or five storey podiums full of shops and services. City planners insist that if developers want to build a high rise in Vancouver, they must also create one of the following: a public park or plaza, day-care centre, or land for affordable social housing.

“We can find various geometries to save ourselves and the planet. They do not all involve stacking our lives into the sky, but they are almost all tighter than what the proponents of dispersal have been selling us.” Though planners and developers have attempted to segregate the city into areas designated by function and linked by main arteries, “everything remains inherently connected to everything else. The ways we move, the things we buy, the pleasures we take, the trash we produce, the carbon we blow into the atmosphere, and the economy itself are intertwined and interdependent. If you follow these threads far enough, they lead to a point of intersection where the projects of urban prosperity, sustainability, and happiness really do converge – not in a single object or building, but in the complex weave of energy, mobility, economics, and geometric systems that define city life,” Montgomery writes. 

Whether you live in the inner city or have bought your dream home in the suburbs, the shape of your city has a huge impact on your health, wealth and happiness. As energy costs rise, cities and individuals can realize positive benefits by embracing change. “The happy city plan is an energy plan. It is a climate plan. It is a belt-tightening plan for cash-strapped cities. It is also an economic plan, a job plan, and a corrective for weak systems. It is a plan for resilience.” We can take back control of the systems that determine what happens in our cities. We can have our cake and eat it too, using the basic recipe for urban happiness Montgomery offers. This is a thought-provoking, educational and interesting book that should be required reading for every politician and planner. 

nancy-gillNancy, Night Sky Woman, has been doing psychic card readings professionally for over 20 years. She is also an astrologer and has studied a variety of spiritualities and philosophies. She has been writing Taroscopes for over six years and teaches the tarot through lifelong learning. She reads out of the Bella Vista Restaurant and at events around Winnipeg, MB. To book an appointment or for information about classes, you can reach Nancy at 204-775-8368 or by email at ngill@mymts.net.

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