Build the city to save the world


Happiness is slippery, it slithers away between your fingers, but problems are something you can hold on to, they’ve got handles, they’re rough and hard.
Isabel Allende


Partly because sprawl has forced Americans to drive farther and farther in the course of every day, per capita road death rates in the United States hover around forty-thousand per year. That’s a third more people than are killed by guns. It’s more than 10 times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Here’s an image that sticks: imagine a loaded Boeing 747 crashing every three days, killing everyone on board. That’s how many people die on U. S. highways every year… A rational policy maker would wage war, not on other nations, but on traffic deaths. 
Charles Montgomery

Six significant ideas in Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, about why things go wrong in our cities:

  1. Happiness never stands still. Happiness is inherently remote. “…the brain constantly adjusts its idea of what we need in order to be happy. It compares what we have now to what we had yesterday and what we might possibly get next. It compares what we have to what everyone else has. Then it recalibrates the distance to a revised finish line. But that finish line moves even when other conditions stay the same, simply because we get used to things.”
  2. We are hardwired for active dissatisfaction. “Hunter-gatherers… compulsively looked ahead in order to kill more game or collet more berries than they did yesterday, were more likely to make it through lean times and thus pass on their genes. In this model, happiness is not a condition at all. It is an urge genes employ to get an organism working harder and hoarding more stuff. The human brain has not changed much in the ten thousand years since we began to farm.”
  3. We make bad decisions all the time, and these decisions shape our cities. We are not equipped to make decisions that maximize utility because we are not equipped to make decisions with the longer term in mind. For example, we choose long commutes, even though the longer people choose to commute, the less happy people are with their entire lives. Extrinsic rewards trump the intrinsic rewards.
  4. We generate unreasonable expectations.  Our culture sends us messages about about what is important in our lives. “Our brains are pushed and pulled by the powerful synergy of memory, culture, and images. So our concept of the right house, car, or neighbourhood might be as much a result of happy moments from our past or images that flood us in popular media as of any rational analysis of how these elements will influence the moments of our lives.”  You know  the things that harm us in our cities – time spent in cars, lack of walkability and social cohesion, pollution – yet we are so attached the things that generate the negative that we ignore the information so we can live up to our unreasonable expectations.
  5. The habits of professionals make the same cognitive mistakes as the rest of us. Everything described above applies to citizens and professionals alike – but the professionals (the architects, landscape architects, engineers and planners) build the city and give us our choices. Limited choices. This is true, but Montgomery does not acknowledge the power of the consumer and how as citizens we also shape our city. Where we choose to spend our money is where the developers will go… We all make the cognitive mistakes.
  6. Presentism: “we let what we see and feel today bias our view of the past and future.” This is a cognitive error. Example: too much traffic on the road, so I want more lanes; lanes immediately fill up with cars; too  much traffic on the road, so I want more lanes; I forget that the last time this happened, the solution did not help; I want more lanes.

The real issue facing us are the cognitive blocks that “prevent us from recognizing the connection between the way we live in cities and the massive risks now facing our world and our species.” There are clear safety and environmental threats to how we move in our cities, yet we are held back, “…in part by the autopoieisis of urban systems that have their own momentum and staying power. But we are also held back by our own imperfect minds.”

So what?

The sustainable city has got to promise more happiness than the status quo. It has got to be healthier, higher in status, more fun, and more resilient than the dispersed city. It has got to lure us together rather than push us apart. It has got to reward people for making efficient choices when they move around. It has got to be a city of hedonic satisfaction, of distilled joys that do not cost the world. The city shapes our decisions. It always has.
Charles Montgomery

Now what?

Montgomery’s challenge is to build the city that will save the world. Pieces of that city are being born all over the planet right now. The innovative acts and activities where people are pouring themselves into their work that makes the world a better place; they are improving the physical and social habitats of our cities, and our economic lives.

Strategies you can use to create the city that will save the world:

What are you doing to create the city that will save the world?



I’ve posted a few times about Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design. Here they are for you to explore:

2 thoughts on “Build the city to save the world”

  1. Great write up Beth, loved that book! My only critique was with #3. I don’t think Montgomery did a thorough job of explaining the impact of market failures particularly the lack of transparency provided to us by our current neoliberal economy on our ability to make good long term decisions. I think it would have been a stronger argument if he had more clearly pin pointed the effects of market failures on our ability to make decisions, he discusses them throughout the book but didn’t interlace them closely enough with #3 for my comfort.

    1. That’s in interesting point on market failures, Jamie. Is it really a “market” failure if the market gives us what we ask for? Or is that your point – is the market not delivering what we ask for?

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