happy_city_236While many books have recently focused on making cities denser, more walkable, or more functional, asking how to make urban populations happier is a slightly different question. Inspired heavily by Enrique and Guillermo Peῆalosa’s work in Bogotá, Colombia, but also drawing on examples from Europe and North America, Charles Montgomery makes his case in the book The Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. A Vancouver-based journalist who also worked at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York City, Montgomery calls for a city that is both more equitable and more resilient, but also healthier and happier.

As the United States in particular climbs out of the recent housing crisis, Montgomery recounts a cautionary tale: “The saddest moments in my own journey were not in the shanties of South America but in the exurbs of California. Think of a place like the San Joaquin Valley—places like Stockton or Tracy. Nearly a third of the people commute out of the county back to the Bay Area every day for work. Most don’t do it because they love to drive—they’ve been pushed out by antidevelopment forces that have driven real estate prices sky high in the Bay Area. Their lives are entirely dependent on their cars and cheap gas. . . . These people did not seem free to me.”

Montgomery says communities like Stockton have had problems with youth gangs because parents work so far away. In the Stockton suburb of Weston Ranch,  parent-teacher conferences have to be scheduled as late as 9 p.m. to accommodate residents’ long commutes. In one anecdote from the book, a mother gets a phone call from a daycare center saying her son is being hospitalized, but then faces a two-hour one-way drive just to be by her son’s side. Even for people who “won the foreclosure lottery” and bought their suburban homes for pennies on the dollar, the families he interviews don’t know or trust their neighbors.

Montgomery also singles out the obesogenic neighborhoods of Atlanta, where residents gain weight just by living there. Culs-de-sac and dendritic street patterns make it harder to get around except by car, and the building code itself favors parking lots and wide roads over parks and pedestrians.

While he advocates for less sprawl, he warns that “it would not be a good idea for us all to move into residential towers. The only urban form where people report being less trusting than the exurban edge is the residential tower.” Montgomery says that most single-family owners in Vancouver are now being permitted to put in a legal rental suite in their basement and to turn their garage into a laneway cottage. In what Montgomery says could be the single biggest urban infill project in North America, Vancouver’s small-scale conversions to multifamily helps with both density and affordability while mitigating the need for skyscrapers.

Montgomery spoke with Urban Land by phone about his book:

Here in Washington, D.C., there is some debate about what impact increasing the city’s building height limit would have on affordability as a proxy for happiness. But you seem to be in favor of densification rather than verticalization. 

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Author Charles Montgomery (center) at the 2013 ULI Terwilliger Center Housing Opportunity Conference in Seattle.

I have found anecdotally that places become more social when residents are able to control their interactions with their neighbors. When Jane Jacobs talked about the alchemy of having many eyes on the street, she was only partly right. As it turns out, when there are many eyes on the street, passersby feel safer, but residents say they feel less safe.

If we can build intermediate sociability—soft spaces between home and public, both within residential blocks and between them. If you can limit the number of units that share an elevator or a hallway, that helps. I come back to the Vancouver model. The Vancouver Foundation has found that people who live on the ground are more likely to trust their neighbors, and do favors for their neighbors. In the book, I talk about a man named Rob McDowell who bought a high-status unit in the residential tower. Something like 200 units shared the elevator. It’s very hard to mediate your interaction with strangers [with so many units sharing just one elevator].

When he moved to a townhouse at the base of this tower, there were only 12 [such units] and they shared the third-story garden roof. The townhouse residents seemed to always be out in the garden, playing volleyball, having barbecues, and hanging out. The tower residents never used it.

After a few months living at the base, McDowell knew all of his neighbors. After a few years, he considered most of them friends. This is remarkable, considering the average American has fewer than two people with whom he or she can share secrets—a little more than one close friend.

How do you feel about the trend toward micro-units in some cities?

Micro-units are certainly worth pursuing, but too many are being built without convivial common space. Too many are being built with computer rooms as a substitute for common space. For too many, the common space is an afterthought in the basement or at the end of a long corridor. I see the micro-units as a tremendous opportunity for experimentation.

There was a terrific study done in the 1970s that looked at the effect of dorm room configuration on sociability. [Studied were] dorms that had a small number of rooms clustered around a small lounge, as opposed to two dozen rooms sharing a bathroom and small lounges. Residents [of the former] claimed to like each other more, and they became friends, whereas residents of the corridor configuration were largely irritated with each other. They took their feelings with them when they left their residency. When put in a stressful situation, the people from the clustered residences were more comforting to each other, sat closer together.

What other books have you read recently that Urban Land readers might enjoy?

I’m a big fan of Paul Zack’s The Moral Molecule. It looks at the relationship of the trust hormone oxytocin on social relationships, business, and life.

I was really influenced by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a book that every city builder should read—many of us will see ourselves in it. Kahneman suggests that too often in quick decisions, we rely on our fast brain, our instinctive brain, rather than our slow brain, which can lead to much better decisions in complex decision and societies.

In an article for Slate, you contrast the impact of low-density retail on a city’s outskirts versus higher density downtown development.  Would you say that big–box retail has no place in modern cities? What about something like an Ikea?

I am concerned about the drain that big box–style sprawl puts on civic resources. When cities enable big box–style sprawl, they are putting fertilizer on the crops with the lowest yield in terms of taxes and jobs. For example, in [North Carolina's] Asheville, developer Joe Minicozzi found that downtown development created 100 times more sales and property tax and 12 times as many jobs per acre than the Walmart on the edge of town.

Sprawl is expensive to maintain. Look at Stockton, which has declared bankruptcy.

I can think of a modern pro-business solution in Vancouver, near our city hall. Grosvenor, the developer, wanted to build a Home Depot. Vancouver’s planning department has tremendous discretionary power—Larry Beasley, the codirector of planning at the time, pushed the developer to go even denser by aggressively mixing uses. I took a tour of the place. The Home Depot is on top of a grocery store and at least nine streetfront small businesses. Above the Home Depot there is a Winners [a clothing store]. Above that, there are townhouses, organized around an organic garden.

You have this supercharged mixed-use environment, where the retailers thrive. To do so, they’ve had to create a dynamic loading dock facility in the basement for all of the trucks. But the mom-and-pop stores create a vibrant street edge and street life, and Grosvenor is raking in the cash, because the smaller stores are paying more per square foot than the big-box stores. It suggests we really can have it all.

The final chapter is titled “Save Your City, Save Yourself.” Do you see embracing the principles in your book as a political act?

I’ve received some criticism for not calling for class war. Mike Davis [of University of California at Riverside] reviewed the book in Nature and said we need to overthrow the system, or none of these ideas will help. I’m a fan of activist mayors and planners, but my heroes are the individuals who stopped waiting for policy makers to make decisions and just started hacking these places themselves. Theirs are political acts, but I’ve found that they are also spiritual acts, because they help people transform their own lives, by transforming their relationship to the city.

NPR recently had a piece about integrating community gardens into suburban developments. Do you see the locavore movement as another attribute of a happy city?

This is crucial for central city developments. My entry point to this discussion was my work with the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York, where I was invited to program a pop-up urban laboratory. I worked with a neuroscientist named Colin Ellard to create a tour that recorded the psychophysiological effect that public space had on participants.

The most powerful effect we saw was that people felt much happier when exposed to even small amounts of nature in the city. That led me to look much more deeply at the relationship between nature and happiness.

It’s not news that access to nature helps us feel more calm and collected and helps us focus. It’s not news that access to nature helps us heal more quickly from surgery or illness. What was news to me was that access to nature makes us more pro-social. Even after a half hour of exposure to nature, people are more generous—donating to a good cause—and they express more altruistic goals about their own future.

Community gardens are powerful social tools. Your garden may not feed your entire community, but it may create powerful new social bonds, which, as we all know, are crucial to help us through hard times.

The evidence is conclusive: the more we get together, the happier we’ll be.

Brett Widness is the online editor for Urban Land.