Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Happy City: How to Live And Build The Happy City Through Urban Design. Image Source: cover of book “Happy City”

Have you ever pondered if you live in a neighborhood that makes you happy? What turns a city into a good place to live in?  How does the shape of the city where you live influence your experience of happiness? How is the digital age transforming the shape of the city ? But what is it that makes you happy after all? What is happiness?

Lately it seems that many have been studying happiness.  From TED talks to scientific studies about the joie de vivre “happiness” is under scrutiny. Since the nineties varied studies and experiments were done, trying to study and define what makes humans happy. Scholarly articles were written about the subject, and the knowledge accumulated was assembled under the umbrella term of “happiness studies”. The ones mostly interested in happiness were behavioral economists, psychologists  and sociologists, puzzled by how the everyday decisions people make  affected their future lives and sensation of wellbeing.

In the book “Happy City, transforming our lives through urban design” its author, Charles Montgomery, reviewed various theories about happiness, contextualizing them to the experience of city life and his knowledge about urban planning. His aim was to reflect on what makes a city a happy city.

To write his book, the Canadian journalist and urban experimentalist from Vancouver, went on a journey around the world, visiting various places scattered throughout planet Earth, trying understand what are the “ingredients” that transform a city into an environment that propels happiness to its inhabitants. The book is almost written with the best urban fonts and it can be seen as a fascinating travelogue of his journeys to cities such as Atlanta, Bogotá, Vancouver, Sienna, Copenhagen.

The city as a happiness project

“The city has always been a happiness project” writes Charles Montgomery, in the introductory chapters of the book, that review the “happiness studies” field by going back to the Greeks, such as Aristotle. These created a new word for the sensation of happiness or wellbeing: “eudaimonia” that means literally “to be inhabited or accompanied by a good daimon, or guiding spirit.”

The greeks connected happiness with the city center, the Agora, filled with market stalls,  the governing meeting chambers, marble temples, altars to gods, statues of heroes. It was in the Agora, that people would meet and talk, and their stood as well the first philosophers, that wisely discussed “happiness”.

Quote By Aristotle. Intelligenthq

How to achieve “Eudaimonia” has puzzled philosophers and thinkers throughout times, all contributing to the debate, with their varied stances and solutions. Those solutions have shifted, as times moved on, and just as philosophies of happiness changed, so did the shape of cities.  As Charles Montgomery says: “new generations are growing up with a different mental library of stories that shape their domestic tastes.”

In his book, Montgomery takes us on a journey to some of the ideas that spurred experiments with city shaping, convinced that the way cities are built is a powerful influence on the mood and behavior of its inhabitants.  What we learned is that if the city was always a happy city project, some experiments on city planning were a resound failure.  Such was the case of Brazilia, a theoretically “wonderful” modernist city, planned by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, that never pleased its citizens.

Another was the Sprawl city.

Commuting To The Lost Paradise: The Sprawl City 

The origins of the sprawl city, can be traced back to the XIXth century: when wealthier families moved away from the cramped, polluted city shaped by the Industrial revolution, into the countryside. The phenomena inaugurated the suburb. During the second half of the XXth century, suburbs grew exponentially, particularly in America, Australia and New Zealand. Its characteristics changed, and the sprawl cities were invented. The sprawl cities are now defined as low-density communities reliant upon heavy automobile usage, away from central urban areas .

But to move away from the centre in order to have a bigger house with outdoors space in a more sparsely populated environment, proved to be a bad solution as well. The ones living in the sprawl city became heavily dependent on the car to shop, go to work, or find spaces of entertainment. The sprawl city is now widely seen as an exhausting solution, that brought isolation, stress, and disconnection to millions of people.

The Sprawl City

The Happy City Is Connected

But as we all know, as humans, we long for bonds and attachment. In his book, Montgomery reminds us of our connectedness: “The city challenges us not just to live together but to thrive together, by understanding that our fate is a shared one.”

Connectedness is thus the central argument of the book, as nowadays, it is well known that where and with whom you live influences our sensation of happiness. We become happier when we establish casual but regular relationships with the people living around us,  not only our nuclear family, but also your friends and casual neighborhood relations. By knowing this, we can make urban design choices that build on those relations.

Another argument of this book is the idea that if you lacked opportunities to make choices until the second half of last century, where urban developers, particularly in the American continent, all provided the same type of massive customized solutions, that has changed now, and Montgomery tell us lots of examples of people actively engaged in trying to make the happy city happen.

One of such examples is N Street Cohousing community. It all started when two activists bought two houses in 1986, on a neighborhood on the edge of the University Town of Davis, that had been built in the mid-1950’s consisting mostly of 3 bedroom-2 bathroom houses separated by fences. After a while, they decided to take apart the fence that separated their two houses. N Street Cohousing community is now a leading example on how to create community in existing neighborhoods.

As the Cohousing community mentions: “We live together as an intentional community, sharing much of the joys and pains of our lives with each other. We support each other in difficulty and celebrate in success. We sometimes vacation together. We have even been known to fall in love and marry each other. However, we live in our own homes and have our own yards (though without any fences). Each of us can be private when we want to be and each household sets its own culture for visiting, borrowing, and participating.”

N Street Cohousing

As Montgomery says, we don´t need others to do the city for us, as nowadays there is no excuses as we have both access to the tools, and the freedom to “do the city” if we really want to do it.

Montgomery concludes his book by presenting his “hands on” manifest:

“We do not need to wait for someone else to make it. We build it when we choose how and where to live. We build it when we move a little bit closer. We build it when we choose to move a little slower. We build it by choosing to put aside our fear of the city and other people. We build it by pursuing it in our lives, and in so doing, pushing the city to change with us. We build the happy city by living it.”

To make things happens, some say, is actually what happiness is all about.  Carol Ryff, a developmental psychologist interviewed by Montgomery summarized it very well reminding us once again of what is eudaimonia : “to be possessed by the good spirits”.

“Aristotle offered us the image of a cow in the field, contentedly chewing its cud. He was absolutely clear that this is not what “eudaimonia” is about! It´s about getting up and working very hard towards goals that make your life meaningful, sometimes in ways that are not at all conductive to short-term contentment.”(…) “In fact, it may not be about contentment at all. It´s about the realization of talent and potential, and the feeling that you are able to make the most of your abilities in life.”

We are living in the midst of the digital age, characterized by connectedness, instantaneity and ubiquitous access to information. Accessing the information that can make things happen is as well easier then ever. It is thus possible now, to bring complexity, beauty, conviviality and communality to the city, by living and building the city with creativity.