“We can live well and save the world at the very same time.” These are the words Charles Montgomery uses to conclude the 11th chapter of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, where he argues that everything is interconnected in cities. He names the challenge of our times: by designing for people, rather than cars, we are not giving up the scarce commodity of freedom, but rather gaining an abundance of what we need on many fronts.
Montgomery inspires a new story of city life that gives us much more than we expect. When we design cities for multiple modes, which means accommodating many ways of travel for many kinds of people at many stages of life, we get the benefits of interconnectedness. Here’s how interconnectedness shows up for Montgomery:
- Designs that make walking and cycling safer also reduce greenhouse gas emissions
- Turning an expressway, like the Pompidou in in Paris, into a beach for a day addresses both climate and liveability issues
Everything is connected to everything else:
The ways we move, the things we buy, the pleasures we take, the trash we produce, the carbon we blow into the atmosphere, and the economy itself are intertwined and interdependent. If you follow these threads far enough, they lead to a point of intersection where the projects of urban prosperity, sustainability, and happiness really do converge – not in a single object or building, but in the complex weave of energy, mobility, economics, and geometric systems that define city life (p. 252).
The thrust of his work is that the car looks like freedom – and for many people it was and is. But on a grander scale it is not. As mentioned in happy mobility, one third of North America’s population does not have access to a car. Much of the city is designed to only work for the car. Moreover, the current pattern of city building – dispersed and in service to the car – is a ponzi scheme – for public finances, for public health, and pollution (p. 260-261). A new mode of city building takes into account the interconnections everywhere. Some of Montogomery’s examples:
- Mixing housing and jobs and places to shop allows carbon and lifestyle goals to merge (p. 267)
- Change the city’s relationship with energy and distance – shorter drives mean less fuel consumption. The money spent stays in the local economy (p. 266)
- Building more connected, complex places means getting more tax jobs and tax revenue from land. A six-storey mixed use building is much healthier than a large-box development (p. 265)
Montgomery is calling for basic thoughtfulness about how we design our cities. He is also calling for a change in perspective that shifts us from scarcity, to abundance. It’s not about limiting use of the car, rendering it a scarce mode of transportation, but about adding modes of transportation. An abundance of ways to move, generating more freedom than the car could every provide. And generating an abundance of benefits as well – economic, social and environmental.
Designing and building happy cities does not mean that we have to do without – it means that we have to do better. The “better” is in how we embrace the complexity of living closer to each other:
We have only begun to understand the potential of … overlapping systems, but we do know that when regular people and city builders alike embrace complexity and the inherent connectedness of city life, when we move a little closer, we begin to free ourselves from the enslaving hunger for scarce energy (p. 270).
The challenge is to figure out how to live closer together, allowing connections. We can choose to put our energy into not having enough roads, not enough time, not enough stuff. Or we can make better use of the city we have, from a stance of abundance, and embrace the overlaps, move a little closer.
City life offers an abundance of interconnections, everywhere. This is our resilience strategy.
The happy city plan is an energy plan. It is a climate plan. It is a belt-tightening plan for cash-strapped cities. It is also an economic plan, a jobs plan, and a corrective for weak systems. It is a plan for resilience (p. 253).
… just about every measure I’ve connected to happy urbanism also influences a city’s environmental footprint and, just as urgent, its economic and fiscal health. If we understand and act upon this connectedness, we just may steer hundreds of cities off the course of crisis (p. 258).
We can live well and save the world at the same time.