Cities design our lives

It is audacious to believe that the city might build happiness just by changing its shape. 
But it is foolish not to chase the thought, because around the world, and especially amid the sprawls capes of modern North America, the evidence shows that cities do indeed design our lives. 
Charles Montgomery (p. 43)

A simple syllogism for you: A. The design of our cities impacts our social networks. B. The quality of our social networks impacts the quality of our lives. C. Therefore, the design of our cities impacts the quality of our lives.  And since we design our cities, we are also designing the quality of our lives – our personal, individual lives and also the lives of others. The places we make shape us.

Charles Montgomery, in Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, writes,

A healthy social network looks like the root of a tree. From the most important relationships at the heart of the network, thinner roots stretch-out to contacts of different strength and intensity. Most people’s root networks are contracting, closing in on themselves, circling more and more tightly around spouses, partners, parents, and kids. These are our most important relationships, but every arborist knows that a tree with a small root-ball is more likely to fall over when the wind blows (p. 54).

People are increasingly solitary and we are at risk of falling – individually and collectively – when the wind blows. For Montgomery, this is because of our changing social habitat (marriages are not lasting as long; people work longer hours; people move more frequently) as well as our physical habitat (increased commute times; less trust found in monofunctional, car-dependant neighbourhoods than in walkable neighbourhoods with diverse housing, shops and places to work). The research is showing that social habitats struggle when our physical habitat in cities allows for dispersal (see Chapter 3 – The (Broken) Social Scene).  Our proximity to each other is important.

Here’s Montgomery’s take on how we got here:

  1. Put everything in its right place. Zoning, the rules that tell us what we can and can not do on our land that emerged first in the 1880s to ban laundries from a California city’s core, have “ensured that first-generation suburbs closer to downtowns do not grow more diverse and dense. They have pushed new development out to the ever-expanding urban fringe and beyond… And they have ensured that these new developments will, in turn, resist most efforts to change or adapt them over time (p. 69).”
  2. We lost the shared street. When cars first arrived on our streets, our streets were shared places for everyone: “The road was a market, a playground, a park, and yes, it was a thoroughfare… It was a chaotic environment littered with horse dung and fraught with speeding carriages, but a messy kind of freedom reigned (p. 69). As cars and trucks emerged in American cities in the 1920s, road culture was transformed: “more than two hundred thousand people were killed in motor accidents in the United States that decade. Most were killed in cities. Most of the dead were pedestrians. Half were children and youth (p. 70 [1]).” The subsequent design – and subsidized financing – of city streets put motorists first.
  3. Freedom for cars to move. Futurama, “a vast pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York… showed people the wondrous world they would inhabit in 1960 if cities embraced the Motordom vision (p. 73).” Futurama was characterized by speed, “sleek highways propelling citizens from orderly cities to pristine open spaces (p. 73).” 24 million people saw the exhibit and the high speed philosophy; the cultural shift toward the automobile lifestyle was cemented (p. 73).” The sponsor: Shell Oil.
  4. The momentum of autopoiesis. Cities are a system that, like many others, are prone to entrenchment, replication and expansion. “Once the system of dispersal was established in early suburbs, it began to repeat itself in plan after plan – not because it was the best response to any particular place, but because of the momentum of autopoieisis (p. 75).” It is easier to repeat work that has been done before – and it fuelled and age of unprecedented wealth.

But the choice is not between suburbs and downtown; “We must redesign both landscapes and the fabric that connects them in ways that answer the needs that led us to retreat in the first place (p. 77).” To do this, we must examine how our physical environment affects how we feel. To do this, we need to examine what influences our health and controls our behaviour. For Montgomery, we need to understand the psychology of the urban world and then make decisions about our place in the urban world.

We design our cities; cities design our lives.

We can choose to build places that make us feel good.

What are the qualities of urban places that make you feel good?



Note –

[1] Norton, Peter D., Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 21.


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