How to Make Your City Happier

Charles Montgomery’s new book is about improving cities not by making them wealthier or more efficient, but by making them happier.

Some happy people in a city. Credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

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In the first chapter of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa captures the book’s agenda when he’s quoted as saying, “Most things that people buy in stores give them a lot of satisfaction the moment they buy them, but after a few days, that satisfaction decreases… But a great public space is a kind of magical good. It never ceases to build happiness.” Author Charles Montgomery opens with Peñalosa’s story because, as mayor, he realized that he couldn’t make his people that much richer — but he could fix their city so that they felt better about their lives.

Indeed, Montgomery’s book is all about ways in which a city can feel better for the folks who live in it. It covers much of the same ground as Leo Hollis’s Cities are Good For You, but throughout the reader has a better sense of where Montgomery is aiming: He’s interested in how design can make life better, which does not mean wealthier or more efficient. He means happier.

A lot of material should be familiar to Next City readers, as this is more a book that needs to be put in front of folks who continue to push for or buy into low density, long-drive development. That said, chapters 5 through 7 are interesting because they deal with ideas upon which many people may agree, but which don’t necessarily inform the choices they make.

Chapter Five, “Getting It Wrong,” is the toughest medicine. Montgomery breaks down the reasons why seeking material gain — which everything about our culture teaches us to do — is a recipe for misery. “Hunter-gatherers more oriented to dissatisfaction, those who compulsively looked ahead in order to kill more game or collect more berries than they did yesterday, were more likely to make it through lean times,” he writes. “We have been hardwired for active dissatisfaction.”

He then spells out how this works in modern life. Every time we buy something we think we’ll like, the glow of it wears off quickly because we tend to put it in the context of what everyone else has. Our next move is often to see how we could make it even better. As long as you look at what you have, it can always improve, right? Bigger, fancier, cooler, newer — it never stops.

Montgomery tells a personal story of a home he co-owned in Vancouver, where he made precisely these wrong decisions. In many of the books covered here, authors seem reluctant to put themselves in the story. I appreciated Montgomery’s story, and was impressed at where he ended up after dealing with his mistakes. Telling that story gives us a way, as readers, to hold him accountable, to know he has something at stake in the story.

In Chapter Six, he breaks down how what we think we want (space, a big view, privacy) only scratches one itch — the itch we tend to think of when picking homes. We think we want a nice big place with a sense of openness and no chance of hearing the neighbor’s hi-fi. And it’s not as if we don’t want all that, but we also want social lives and a grocery story we can walk to in less than five minutes. Montgomery explores how some civic leaders (notably in Vancouver) have struck a balance between these desires in interesting ways.

Chapter Seven has a mystical quality. It’s all about how certain spaces tell us to hang out with each other, even in ways that we aren’t always conscious of: How bollards in Italy seem to hypnotize people into leaning on them and chatting with one another, for instance, or how visitors to Disneyland’s Main Street USA are bizarrely open to hugs from strangers.

This last bit was an experiment Montgomery tried with neuroeconomist Paul Zak. The pair went to Disneyland and started bumping people and dropping their wallets, all of which was met with pleasantness. “Then we upped the ante,” Montgomery writes. “We accosted random strangers and asked them for hugs. This was a bizarre request from two grown men, but the Main Streeters, men and women, responded with open arms and little hesitation. The place displayed a pro-social demeanor that was almost as cartoonish as the setting.”

To me, the most remarkable chapter besides “Getting It Wrong” is Chapter 13, “Save Your City, Save Yourself,” which features three stories of people in different cities who decided to do something about their lifestyle and wound up with a place they liked better.

The first story is about a Saratoga Springs mother who was told she couldn’t let her son ride his bike to middle school when he wanted. (This vignette made me crazy.) The next is about a Brooklynite who decided to address honking in his neighborhood, and the last one concerns someone in a Portland suburb who decided to build a bit more community on his block.

Each tale is distinct and powerful, but I don’t recommend them for their feel-good quality. I recommend them strategically, as they’re good examples that might help others who want to live in better places find ways to get there.

On balance, Happy City is a nice primer on the latest ideas and best practices for making cities serve everyone. It orients the reader toward what makes a community work, not what its individuals want for themselves. While it doesn’t represent any sort of sweeping paradigmatic shift or break any stories that will grab headlines worldwide, its personal orientation gives me one last group of people to whom I can also recommend this book: Anyone who has suspected that there might be a way that they, with some changes, could live their own lives a little more happily.

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Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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