The city is a happiness project


 The city is ultimately a shared project, … a place where we can fashion a common good that we can simply not build alone.
Charles Montgomery (p. 41).


“The city has always been a happiness project,” are the words that form the title of the first chapter, and the premise of, Charles Mongomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design. As a social project, the city gives us the challenges we need to thrive.

Drawing on Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia (contentment), and developmental physiologist Carol Ryff’s work, he found the following checklist for happiness, or what would best be referred to as the good life (p. 36):

  • Self acceptance, or how well you know and regard yourself
  • Environmental mastery – you 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

In fact, Ryff’s research found that there is a “synergistic power of living a meaningful, challenging, and connected life … A bit of heroic struggle can be good for you (p. 37).” This idea state is what Ryff calls ‘challenged thriving’. [1] For Montgomery, this means that a good city is measured “not only by its distractions and amenities but also by how it affects this everyday drama of survival, work, and meaning (p. 37).” The tension in the city is necessary – for our growth and our happiness.

The tension in cities  moderates our relationships with other people. Embodied in every citizen is the tension between selfishness and altruism: “… each of us benefits when some of us subsume private goals for the sake of the community, and everyone benefits when everyone cooperates… At the same time, the drive by each of us to promote our own interests creates a dynamism and wealth that can overflow through the city (p. 40-41).”

Cities are a shared project that allows us to thrive together. The city challenges us to do more than simply live together. Montgomery points out that “we are hard-wired to trust one another, in spite of our natural wariness of strangers (p. 39).” This trust allows us to move past simply living together and improve.  The city challenges us to thrive together, and understand that our fate is a shared one (p. 42).

Montgomery also names potential accomplishments of the city, after it meets our basic needs of food, shelter and security (p. 43):

  • Maximize joy and minimize hardship
  • Lead us toward health, rather than sickness
  • Offer citizens real freedom to live, move and build our lives
  • Build resilience against economic and environmental shocks
  • Apportion – fairly – space, services, mobility, joys, hardships and costs
  • Enable us to build and strengthen bonds between friends, families and strangers (bonds that give life meaning and represent the city’s greatest achievement  and opportunity)
  • Acknowledge and celebrate our common fate, open doors to empathy and cooperation, to help us tackle great challenges

This list – his recipe – is an initial set of indicators for us to use as we ascertain if the cities we create are the cities we want.

How does your city fashion a common good?




[1]  Ryff, Carol D., and B. H. Singer, “Know Thyself and Become What You Are: A Eudaimonic Approach to Psychological Well-Being,” Journal of Happiness Studies, 2006:13-29.



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