The proximity/retreat conundrum


The conundrum of the city is found in two words: proximity and retreat. For Charles Montgomery (Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design), we want to be close to each other and far apart at the same time:

We need the nourishing, helping warmth of other people, but we also need the healing touch of nature. We need to connect, but we also need retreat. We benefit from the conveniences of proximity, but these conveniences can come with the price of overstimulation and crowding. We will not solve the conundrum of sustainable city living unless we understand these contradictory forces and resolve the tension between them (p. 106). 

Our current design to resolve this tension is in the dispersed city. We are in retreat from each other, and we demand and create expanses of space between us. At the same time, we recognize that the most exciting city places are alive with people and activity. Charles Montgomery (Happy City) notes that the very purpose of the city, before refrigeration and the internet, was to “come together every day to trade, to talk, to learn, and to socialize on the street.” We can now meet most of our needs without a physical space, so Montgomery asks,

Can we build – or rebuild – city spaces in ways that enable easy connections and more trust among both familiars and strangers? The answer is a resounding yes. The spaces we occupy can not only determine how we feel. They can change the way we regard other people and how we treat one another (p. 156).

The question under the question: can we design and build cities that improve our social habitat, and deepen our connections with the people we know and don’t know? Can we improve city life by city design?

Below, a few of Montgomery’s findings.

Crowding (proximity) is a design challenge.

The city that feels like a conundrum is not stepping in to the design challenge. Charles Montgomery:

… the detached house … is a blunt instrument: it is a powerful tool for retreating with your nuclear family and perhaps your direct neighbours, but a terrible base from with to nurture other intensities of relationships. Your social life must be scheduled and formal. Serendipity disappears in the time eaten up by the commute and in that space between car windshields and garage doors. On the other hand, life in places that feel to corded to control can leave us so overstimulated and exhausted that we retreat into solitude. Either way, we miss out of the wider range of relationships that can make life richer and easier (p. 128).

Happiness is in our hands. We need to live closer to each other to be happier, yet we have to design our cities so they work, or we will not be happier. Density, crowding, proximity, whatever you want to call it, is not something we have to tolerate. We simply have to design with clear objectives in mind.

Nature is needed at every scale. 

Designing for proximity means weaving nature into the urban fabric – at every scale. This is a prerequisite for architectural density. For Montgomery, here’s why:

  1. Nature brings out the good in us. People who live in areas with more parks are more helpful and trusting than people who don’t, regardless of their income or race (p. 111). 
  2. Biological complexity matters. The suburban savannah of grass and a few trees is not good for us. The more varieties of trees and birds and nature, the better it is for our brains.  (p. 111-115)
  3. Nature needs to be woven into the urban fabric. We need to be able to see it and touch it (p. 120). Proximity matters, so we need to do this at all scales. Small things count.

He reminds us that the challenge of living in dense environments is not simply aesthetic; it is also social. And nature can help us with that. Montgomery:

… we know nature in cities makes us happier and healthier. We know it makes us friendlier and kinder. We know it helps us build essential bonds with other people and the places in which we live (p. 123). 

Design for conviviality and control.

We can choose friendly – happy – design and have opportunities to retreat when needed. We are looking for a balance of conviviality and control – social spaces that are nourishing, allowing us to choose to be close to others, or be separate. Design matters.

Every plaza, park, or architectural facade sends messages about who we are and what the street is for (p. 160). 

Nature makes us more trusting and generous toward other people (p. 161), but nature isn’t the only design offering for our consideration as we recreate our cities. Sharp architectural angles light up the brain’s fear centres (p. 161). Blank walls are antisocial spaces. This is what Montgomery’s book is all about – creating cities for people.

Traffic design can be about liveability. We can choose to integrate social life with velocity. We can choose to allow neat things to happen. We can choose to make places. We can choose to design roads for happiness. Montgomery:

Cities that are serious about the happiness of their citizens have already begun to confront their relationship with velocity. they are making what once seemed to be radical decisions about what – and whom – streets are for (p. 173). 


Montgomery’s work provides a window into how we can design our habitats to better serve citizens. He reminds us that we design cities, and in turn cities design our lives. We make our cities, so the city is our happiness project. In the mix, the habits of city-building professionals shape our cities; yet these same professionals are charged with serving the public interest. As the public interest evolves, so too will the habits of professionals. Ultimately, it is our job as citizens to engage with our cities, and professionals, to build a city to save the world.

We are retrofitting our cities to serve ourselves.

Where do you see people retrofitting your city?



Hint – Edmonton’s Dustin Bajer is organizing the YEG River Valley Food Forest Planting event on July 19, 2014.



One thought on “The proximity/retreat conundrum”

  1. Here’s another example of how we are retrofitting cities in ReNew Canada’s latest edition. An article by Steven Peck on how humans need natural elements and environments to be mentally and physically healthy. Article not available online, but here’s a link to subscribe –

    I would add that nature helps emotional and spiritual health too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.