Happy Cities and Evil Suburbs

I recently came across this book – Happy City – by Charles Montgomery, which is a really insightful look at how to turn our cities into vibrant, exciting, enjoyable, rewarding places to live

It turns out that Happy City Labs is actually a think tank and consultancy based in Vancouver but operating worldwide, running workshops and conducting studies, research and experiments into ways to enrich the experience of urban living through the design and planning of cities, neighbourhoods and public spaces, in order to turn them into…Happy Places!

One of the things that I am loving about the book is the way that Montgomery rejects the idea of suburbs and urban sprawl, challenging the notion that getting away from urban centres is somehow a good thing. The thesis (or what I have read of it so far) illustrates how people living in mono functional neighbourhoods on the outskirts of cities are less trusting, less happy than those living in mixed-use neighbourhoods, where residential, retail, leisure and workplaces all exist in the same location. In short, where people from different groups pursuing different activities and functions have the opportunity to meet almost randomly and get to know each other and interact with each other.

Montgomery references several research studies and experiments which have looked at quantifying happiness and what makes people more or less happy.

It turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that having sex ranks very highly in the happiness quotient, followed by meeting friends, spending time with other people in social contexts and generally interacting with others.

And what makes people sad, angry and unhappy…commuting and sitting in traffic!

And yet, for more than half a century (although in London at least I think that this trend is changing) the vast majority of new construction in the residential sector has been focussed on developing the suburbs, where dwellings are more likely to be separated from each other, where opportunities for social interaction (like neighbourhood shops, cafes and pubs are scarce, and where the majority of residents will need a lengthy commute to and from their work in the city centres, and need to use their cars much more than city-based residents.

So far, much of what I have read has reminded me of two of my all time favourite TED talks – James Howard Kunstler “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”

and Robert Waldinger, talking about the world’s longest continuous study on happiness “What makes a good life”