My Favorite Things: Happy Cities, Part I

Dear Reader – I am writing two blogs about Charles Montgomery, this one about his talk at the Inspire Speakers Series, which is more direct reporting, and then another one about his book, Happy City, which will include my own reactions and reflections.

Inspire Speakers Series

May ISS 3Charles entertained a crowd of 100 at the Hill House’s Kaufmann Center Thursday night with many stories and anecdotes regarding urban design failures and successes. This is not a comprehensive review of Charles’ presentation, but rather some thoughts that were salient and/or provocative enough to share.

Charles started his talk by admitting that he had not previously been to Pittsburgh. What a shame.

Then he started a story about throwing a party on Manhattan’s Lower East Side sponsored by the BMW Lab. It was in an unused lot in a neighborhood with much friction and tension due to varying socio-economic, racial, and age perspectives. Not a happy place. He rounded up providers of hot chocolate, a Stranger/Unstranger game, clothes that change colors when in proximity to other people, and sociologist Paul Zak (watch his TEDx Talk here), who insisted on getting people to hug each other and thus build trust and increase the levels of oxytocin in their brains.

Charles leaped to a statement where he said that “cities should build happiness.” Happiness is not just for old graying hippies, he noted, but a goal for everyone.

He then showed (Nobel Prize-winning) Gary Becker’s Evolutionary Happiness function.  (See this article for the gory details.) But to simplify, Charles summed it up as, “People who say they are happy ARE happy.” They also tend to be healthy, active, and engaged in the world.

Charles explained that people generally want similar things:

  • Food, shelter, and security as the basics
  • Health (or at least FEELING healthy) is important
  • Income Equity (which is more important than absolute income)
  • Equality (more equality across all dimensions seems to breed happiness)
  • Mastery (of their lives and immediate environment)
  • Freedom
  • Meaning and belonging

Social ties are the cement that binds all of these together, he said. Social ties provide the means by which all these happen, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. He gave the example of older folks’ social ties being the thread that ensures that someone checks on them in extreme weather events to be sure they are warm/cool enough, have food, and can get medical attention as needed. Specifically, cities with a strong social urban fabric generate one-tenth the number of heat-related deaths as ones with weak social fabrics.

In this vein, he continued, Trusting Cities = Happier Cities. Or, said differently, the happy city is the social city.  More interactions with other people increase happiness. Curiously, more interactions with STRANGERS drive even more happiness. And happiness drives creativity, productivity, and health in everyone.

May ISS 2Charles contrasted this with the suburban car culture that has arisen (been planned) in many communities. Distance kills social ties, he stated. Long commutes by yourself in a car destroys social ties and makes people unhappy. Not only that, but it increases CO2 in the atmosphere, costs up to two times more to travel, makes people overweight, and causes them to die three to five years younger than their counterparts who do not have long commutes.

He told a story of a Vancouver resident (that is also described in the book) who lived on an upper floor in a cool Vancouver condo. He had all the amenities and a great view of the mountains, but he was unhappy. When he traded for a third-floor condo that had direct access to the communal outdoor space on that floor, he started meeting neighbors, engaging in social activities onsite, and became eminently more happy. When Charles asked him how many people he really “loved” (as in family) that now lived near him, he said six or seven. Charles contrasted this with the average 1.5 trusted persons response given by Americans, suggesting again that the social city made a happier city.

A couple other random thoughts thrown in here:

  • To encourage social interaction, it’s been shown that the optimal “soft” buffer zone between private and public space (like your front yard – the space between porch and street) to encourage social interaction is 10.8 feet.
  • The Dunbar number = the number of people that any one person can reasonably know and interact with on a regular basis. More people than that and we start to tune out, create distance, and it becomes too difficult for our brains to process all that we need to do to know whom to trust. And trust is essential for the social fabric. So, in groups larger than this, we tend to not generate as many social ties as in groups smaller than this. (See a New Yorker article for more info.)

While we may not know the precise level of density that is optimal, we know that it is more than we have in most suburban neighborhoods today. Vancouver has passed laws allowing people to convert basements and garages into apartments, thus potentially tripling density in neighborhoods. This creates more connections, more social ties.

May ISS 1

Dr. Peter Walker, Charles Montgomery, Mike Schiller, and Chris Koch

Charles made a final argument in favor of fine-grained walkable neighborhoods. Busier, messier streets (within limits, of course) lead to increased happiness and increased health, and the data supports this, he said. Sometimes, we can create interventions that directly address peoples’ needs (listed above) that in turn make people happier.

In the end, Charles went back to his story from New York’s Lower East Side. Hundreds of people came to the party, they all hugged, they all made new friends, and it was a rousing success as a party. He found that people’s attitudes towards each other softened/mellowed as a result. There was some sense that the world was a better place, at least for a little while.

His suggestions for getting this done and making a  difference:

  • Show up. Be part of the discussions.
  • Be different.
  • Be fun. Bring food, music, playfulness to the conversation.
  • Keep showing up.

His final thoughts:

  • We need to plan for happiness.
  • We need to zone for happiness.
  • We need to build for happiness.

Let’s get to work transforming our livable city into a happy city.

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