Happy Cities: Hedonic Studies and Engineered Environments

Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery is an outstanding publicist for cities and all things urban. In his recent book, The Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Montgomery extols the benefits of density, mass transit, and mixed used development. He argues that the ultimate aim of cities since ancient Athens has been the transformation personal happiness into concrete forms. Montgomery bases his claims on solid research and weak suppositions. While there is much to critique about The Happy City (including the title, which alienated me immediately), Montgomery has penned an interesting and provocative book. Happy City

Montgomery selectively mines and re-purposes research from happiness studies, a burgeoning interdisciplinary area of scholarship drawing from psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience, and anthropology. He starts with a deceptively simple question. If a “rational” economic actor wants more, and the US has high levels of GDP per person, then why aren’t more Americans happy? Montgomery is not interested in expectations, inequality of income, or social mobility. Instead, he sees the cause as lifestyle. He has his sights on a particular villain: the automobile and suburban sprawl.

Montgomery rides along with a denizen of a dispersed city on his daily 3-4 hour commute. The lure of a larger home and a “nicer” community has trapped Randy Strausser into a hellish existence of social isolation, on the road and in his single-family house. He does not interact easily with others. His back hurts and he is always irritable from the stresses of driving. Strausser is a stand-in for millions of other Americans who have foolishly left traditional dense cities for the empty promise of more space, bigger house, bigger yard and more possessions. Montgomery is not keen on exploring the potentially valid reasons that many Americans might prefer suburbs. He relentlessly focuses on the many costs, direct and hidden, of automobiles and car-dependent living.

The book is most persuasive in its use of happiness studies explains cities’ broad appeal. We walk in cities, aiding our health and our mood. We develop loose social ties with neighbors, fellow commuters, and merchants. The mixture of change and structure found in cities is engaging and good for us mentally and physically. Cities are ecologically prudent. They foster a sense of community, belonging, and lateral trust. They make us more productive and more effective. Above all, they increase the potential of connections among humans. Connectivity is essential to human happiness.

Montgomery also explains the politics, history, and psychology that has brought us to current urban living. Here he is on shaky ground, for easy histories across countries and cultures are often problematic. Bogota’s relationships with buses is different than London’s. Montgomery history of the transition of streets shared by people and automobiles to streets with specialized functions (lanes for cars, sidewalks for people) does not fully appreciate local government, culture and needs. What Montgomery does get right, consistently and across continents and eras, is the value and efficacy of putting people at the heart of urban design.

Peppered through Happy City are examples of cities that have changed architecture, policy and regulation, putting people first and increasing happiness. In Bogota, Columbia, mayors have limited and occasionally banned cars from downtown, improving public health. It has been very popular with voters. In Vancouver, British Columbia, zoning regulations insuring views and mixed used development has been an economic boon to the city. Urban bike sharing programs have aided public health and improved people’s sense of trust and safety. Montgomery also provides many cautionary tales of visionary planners and misguided politicians who have sacrificed human happiness at the altar of organization, economic development, or efficiency.

Happy City is ultimately about more than good urban design. It provides insight into the ways in which policy and space impact human behavior and human happiness. It is a lens, a way of thinking, that has applications in many arenas. When I read the value about the effects of car-free dense living, I thought of higher education.

College completion is a national imperative and a college degree is a key part of twenty-first century economic success. We regularly measure the power and impact of a college degree economically on students’ lives and careers. The broader economic effect of college education is also measured. Within the academy, we consider a college education as a function of academic, intellectual, or developmental goals. But what if we thought about college, especially residential college, with an eye toward happiness?

The well-designed and well-executed residential college is close to an ideal “happy” city. It is more authentic than Disneyland, inculcates a shared sense of community and identity, and is home to the purposeful striving that inculcates meaning and good health. Students may engage in self-destructive behavior, but the overall thrust of a college is a classic Greek goal, a sound mind in a sound body.

Consider, too, the values animating colleges and the key factors that psychologists have identified as central to a feeling of happy and good life, or eudaimonia according to Aristotle:

  • Self-acceptance, or how well you know and regard yourself
  • Environmental mastery – your ability to navigate and thrive in the world
  • Positive relations with others
  • Personal growth throughout life
  • Sense of meaning and purpose
  • Feelings of autonomy and independence

These align closely with many higher education value statements and educational goals.

Colleges, in other words, are engines of happiness. Their hedonic pull helps to explain the primacy of “going away to college” in the psyche of the American teenage. It sheds light on why college’s compete for students, building climbing walls, food courts, and luxurious accommodations. And it also makes clear the limited attractiveness an online college education for many.

Spend more time on the quad. It will make you happy and it will be good for you.

David Potash

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