Let the happy city grow you


Over the course of the summer I have been rereading Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, teasing out the city essentials for city life. Here are some big ideas that have surfaced for me in the posts related to / sparked by Happy City:

  1. The city is a shared project that allows us to thrive together, and the shared tension is necessary for our growth and happiness. Ultimately, the city is a happiness project.
  2. Our social habitats struggle when our physical city habitat is dispersed (longer commute times; less trust among people in mono functional, car-dependant neighbourhoods than in walkable neighbourhoods with diverse house in, shops and places to work). How we design – to be in close proximity to each other – matters. The cities we design design our lives. We can choose to build places that make us feel good.
  3. The professionals who design our cities are only part of the picture. Citizens also play a role, as do the business community and our community organizations. It’s not just city hall. At the end of the day, the habits of professionals are as we expect them to be because their job is to serve the public interest.
  4. Everyone, everywhere can actively work to build the city to save the world. It means we have to recognize that we are hardwired to be dissatisfied make bad decisions all the time. And happiness moves – so every time we reach what would make us happy, it moves on and we are dissatisfied. It’s a journey that requires us at every turn to be present to the changes demanded of us. This never ending journey is the force that allows us to improve our cities – and save the world.
  5. People want to be close to each other and apart at the same timethe proximity/retreat conundrum. The design of cities needs to embrace this challenge. We can effectively retrofit our cities by weaving nature into the city at every scale and designing for conviviality.
  6. A city is not happy when the only way to move around is by carHappy mobility is in multiple modes. A happy city allows for choices in how we move around, gives us destinations in reach, and provides connections.
  7. Happiness in the city is about fairness, which means designing cities that accommodate everyone’s experience of the city. But what if the city is not broken, but right on schedule? What if we are where we should be – compelled to improve…
  8. Multiple modes of transportation, rather than a focus primarily on the car, allows us to tap into the abundance of everything, everywhere. The interconnections everywhere in city life are our resilience strategy. Montgomery inspires a new story of the city that gives us much more than we expect.
  9. Change the code, change the city, in two ways. First, if we change the rules that guide the physical developmen of the city, we will change the physical shape of the city. Further, this requires thinking of the city, and our role in it, differently.
  10. Citizens can change the city by thinking about it differently. You don’t have to be an engineer or a city planner to get a better city for yourself. Rethink how you think of it, your relationship with others, and your relationship with the city itself. And when you do, the rest of the city will recalibrate itself. Change up the dance moves, and the others will have to too.

You are a city maker.

And as you explore what you can do to make your city better, as you find your way in the city, you are letting your city find you, and grow you.



Citizens – change up the dance moves


At the end of Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, he argues that it is time for citizens to fight city hall. But the real fight in is in how we think about our cities and our relationships with each other and cities.

Here’s the great irony of the American (and Canadian) city as Montgomery sees it:

… a nation that celebrates freedom and weaves liberty into its national myth rarely gives regular people the chance to shape their own communities. Municipal governments, often with the counsel and assistance of land developers, lay down community plans complete with restrictive zoning long before residents arrive on the scene. Residents have no say about what their streets and parks and gathering places will look like. And once they move in, it is illegal for them to tinker with the shape of the public places they share, or, … to use their homes for anything beyond the dictates of strict zoning bylaws (p. 306).

The challenge is not that municipal governments and land developers need to be fought, but that the voices of citizens and civil society are weak and need to be strengthened. We have been building cities, without making cities that serve us well. (Montgomery’s premise is that cities are a happiness project, and that cities design our lives .)

Looking at the city as a whole system, there are four distinct voices and roles in city making (see my last post on Happy City, change the code, change the city): citizens are the voice of the city spirit, embodying the city’s values; civic managers are civic expertise, looking after our public institutions, serving as the city brain; civil society is the cultural voice of the city, the city’s heart; and the civic builders and developers invest in and build the infrastructure of the city. Civic managers (city hall) and civic builders and developers build the  city, giving it intelligence and physical form. Citizens and civil society add the psychological and cultural aspects of the city. Montgomery articulates an imbalance in today’s city, where we put emphasis on the building, without consciously considering what we are making.


How we make our cities is evolving. They start with people building their own shelter, organizing paths, then roads and more formal buildings and transportation systems, along with water and wastewater systems etc. (Check out Is the unplanned city unplanned?) Cities are changing all the time to respond to the needs of its people, in their context, to create a habitat in which people survive and thrive. As this evolution takes place, our work evolves too. It gets more and more specialized. Just as we don’t do our own dentistry anymore, most of us don’t build our own homes, streets, cities, and sewer lines. But that does not mean we are not interested in them, and how they serve us. That is Montgomery’s point. They are not serving us well. He is calling for a recalibration of these four voices in the city.

The value of Montgomery’s work is that it helps citizens – and civic managers, civic builders and developers and civil society – see what we are building and consider how we could be building cities that serve citizens better. Stories of how citizens step up into work that improves the built form of  cities are useful and inspirational: intersection interventions, city repair. Citizens can dive in.

Citizens need to dive in. Citizens need to think about – and choose – the city that will best serve them. And they need to change how they think.

We are all, through the very geography of our lives, natural stewards and owners of the city. Those who acknowledge it claim great power (p. 295).

Montgomery names concrete ways in which we can think differently about city life, and there is great power in each of these:

  1. Think engagement and curiosity, rather than retreat. Today’s city is a design problem (in the realm of civici managers and builders) but also a psychological, cultural problem (citizens and civil society): “we have translated the uncertainty of city life into retreat instead of curiosity and engagement (p. 316).”
  2. Think trust and cooperation. There are parts of ourselves that are more inclined toward curiosity, trust, and cooperation, and these qualities of behaviour make us feel good. We are equally hardwired for dissatisfaction and status anxiety, as we we are for trust and cooperation.
  3. Think relationships. Between people, but also between the village and its villagers. Does the city welcome cooperators and walkers?
  4. Think of your place in the city. Confront your relationship with the city. Can you change your place in the city? Are your habits making you unhappy? Do you need to revisit what the good life looks like? Do you live where you can leave your car at home?
  5. Stand up with imagination. There is a struggle underway as citizens (and even some civic managers and civic builders) grapple with policies and practices that create unhappy cities. And there are lots of creative ways to create the changes we want. You can stand up in full-blown political ways, or simply changing your place in the city.

How we think about our cities, particularly when we align our minds and hearts with our action, is a political act.

This is the truth that shines over the journey toward the happy city. We do not need to wait for someone else to make it. We build it when we choose how and where to live. We build it when we move a little bit closer. We build it when we choose to move a little slower. We build it by choosing to put aside our fear of the city and other people. We build the happy city by pursuing it in our own lives and, in so doing, pushing the city to change with us. We build it by living it (p. 321). 

The four voices in the city are looking out for different things, so they don’t see eye to eye. But the tension in the city is not about ranking the perspective of one over the others, but rather figuring out the role of each in each challenge we face. It is a dance of voices and values; Montgomery invites citizens to change up the dance moves.


Change the code, change the city


Rules do what we ask them to do. What do the rules that shape your city do? In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery argues that the physical pattern of the cities we build makes us unhappy. He proposes we change the pattern, change the code, and by doing so we will change the city and improve our lives.


We are all, through the very geography of our lives, natural stewards and owners of the city. Those who acknowledge it claim immense power.
I have learned this from people who have stopped waiting for mayors or planners or engineers to remake their streets and neighbourhoods. Some… just want to build a community that makes more sense for them than the one that planners handed them. Some are driven by a wish to reclaim an almost intangible sense of belonging. Others want a safer spaces for their kids. Some are trying to save the planet. Some want more freedom to live and move as they please. They rarely use the language of neuroscience or behavioral economics or even architecture, but they are proving that the happy city revolution can start right at the front door, and that every one of us has the power to alter our city. Some of them find that in changing their cities, they also change themselves. (p.  295-6). 

We make our cities. We also have the ability to re-make them.


To better dive into this challenge, remember the four voices of the city offered by Marilyn Hamilton:

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

These four voices have different roles to play in our cities, enabling us to access the full intelligence of the city as we re-make it:

  • The voices of citizens express the center of gravity of the city’s values.  In democratic countries, citizens have the power to elect and criticize the other voices in the city.  They have power as intentional consumers. They express the power of engagement and intention.  They are the voice of the city spirit.
  • The voices of city managers are the voice of city expertise; they are the guides  that oversee the needs of the city.  They are the people who work at city hall, school boards, health institutions on our behalf.  They are the voice of the city brain.
  • The voices of civil society are the cultural voice of the city. These are the social organizations and non-government organizations that attend to the social needs of the city.  They are the voices of the city’s heart.
  • The voices of city developers are traditionally the people who ‘conceive of, invest in and build the infrastructure of the city’.  These voices focus on the future – the vision and promise of the city.

The city is a dance of voices and values. It is also where we integrate voices and values, to sort out our relationships with each other and our city habitat. At the heart of this are citizens working to improve our economic, social and physical city habitats. Montgomery is one of these citizens, and tells the story of other citizens’s work.


Our city managers put in place rules to guide the physical development of our cities. In the Western world, they do so with our blessing, through elections and public engagement. Montgomery asks if our rules and codes align with our preferences:

If so many people want to live in or near walkable urban spaces, why have so few been built in the last few decades? Why can’t any town just retrofit its troubles away?
One reason stems from contradictions within our own preferences. Although it is true that most of us say we would prefer a walkable community over one that forces us to drive long distances, more of us also want to live in a  detached home with plenty of privacy and space. In other words, we would like to have our cake and eat it too, the ideal world being one in which we reap the benefits of other people choosing to live in apartments and town houses nearby, but not close enough to disturb our sleep (p. 278). 

Montgomery has noticed that the things that make suburbs more walkable, slower, safer, healthier and more welcoming are often forbidden by zoning codes and road standards. There are strict controls on what happens on each lot of land: “Everything has its place – far from everything else (p. 279).” We create the rules that create what we have; “change the code and you change the city (p. 282).” Further, code “is to the city what an operating system is to a computer. It is invisible, but it is in charge. So the battle for American cities has moved from architectural drafting tables to the dense, arcane pages of zoning codebooks. The winners will determine the shape of cities and the fate of suburbia (p. 283).”

Here’s the thrust of Montogmery’s case: our current set of rules (zoning bylaws or codes) separate and segregate the various activities in a city, which causes dispersal. An example alternative is  form-based code, “a set of rules that prescribes the shape of spaces that building without necessarily dictating what can happen there. Most form-based codes specifically do away with the strict segregation of uses that characterized twentieth-century zoning plans, so that work, play, domesticity, and commerce could begin to intermingle again (p. 283).”

A change in code from segregation to integration will change the form of the city, and our relationship with it.


There’s another pattern change needed, in how we look at the city. It starts with a distinction between the ‘City’ and the ‘city‘.  The ‘City’ is the local government entity that plays the role of civic manager. The ‘city’ is the economic, social and physical habitat we create. This distinction is important; while the City puts in place the rules, all voices are looking for rules that will serve the city, not the City. This is work for all voices to do. For Montgomery, a town or a neighbourhood or a city is “not just a picture, and not just an idea, but a system for living [you] can shape together (p. 294).”

So the task now is to retrofit the city. “This is the lesson for all retrofits: the system is ultimately more important than the package it comes in, and the greatest hurdle for sprawl repair may be challenging the way each of us views the city (p. 291).” And we will view it from our different perspectives (voices) and our values. We organize ourselves – and our cities – according to our values. (For more on this, read Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 4).

Montgomery’s call is to get involved.  Change the code, change the city. Change how you relate to the city, and you change the city, regardless of what role you play – as citizen, city manager, civil society or civic developer.

Sometimes the forces that shape our cities can seem overwhelming. It is easy to feel small in the face of monumental power of the real estate industry, the tyranny of zoning codes, the inertia of bureaucracies, and the sheer durability of things that have already been built. It is tempting to believe that the job of fixing cities is the untouchable terrain of distant authorities whom the state has deemed responsible. It is a terrible mistake to give in to this temptation (p. 295).

Re-making the city is up to all of us. Change to code of how we build it, and also change the code of how we think of it.

Abundance of everything, everywhere


“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.



The city’s right on schedule

Assume for a moment that the city is broken. Then consider this question, posed by Charles Montgomery in Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design:

Do you save a broken city by fixing its hardware, its public space and infrastructure, or do you save it by fixing its software – the attitudes and behavior [sic] of its citizens? 

Montgomery tells the story of two mayors of Bogata, Columbia – Antanas Mockus and Enrique Penalosa – who in recent years have radically improved life in their cities. Mockus built a new culture of citizenship and respect. Penalosa built the culture of respect into the city’s body, its infrastructure (p. 231-234) with these big philosophical and political questions:

Who should share in public wealth of the city?
Who should have access to parks and beautiful places?
Who should have the privilege of easy mobility?

In his stories about urban innovations to share the public wealth of the city, to allow vast access to parks and beautiful places, and to expand the privilege of easy mobility, Montgomery finds resistance.  Efforts to build infrastructure for public transportation and bicycles meets resistance. Efforts to provide access to beautiful areas of the city to the “riffraff” meet resistance. Choosing schools and sewers, over elevated highways meets resistance.

For Montgomery, citizens resist urban innovations for two reasons: “deeply held beliefs about the relationship between urban form and culture, and what it means to be free in cities (p. 240-241).” It shows up as an equity war where those that enjoy the benefits of urban systems are inconvenienced when the benefits are reapportioned (p. 241). The sprawling, dispersed city is embedded deep within us. It shapes how we think about our cities, and our streets and roads that allow us to move around our cities.

Take cars for example. For those of us that benefit from the car, any change to how we move about our city in our cars is a challenge to our deep beliefs in freedom of movement. The prospect of having to share our roads with bicycles and public transit, or lose car lanes to bicycles and public transit, sparks a war where car users decry that it is not fair. For Montgomery, this is an equity debate that the car can not win, because, “Today’s urban mobility systems are flat-out unfair, especially in North America… one in every three people [are] at the mercy of scarce public transit or dependent upon someone else to chauffeur him around (p. 241).”

We are not designing for everyone. We are designing for the privilege of the car.

So happiness is fairness.

Happiness is organizing ourselves in cities to share wealth, to share beauty. And the geography of the city matters. Stepping into Montgomery’s challenge to view the city as a share project means that the improvements we make are also shared. Physical improvements in only affluent districts, for example, is not equitable. Creating districts in our city that segregate incomes and cultures is not equitable. The shared city is a city where people are mixed. Mixing is the mark, the mark of civilized, democratic and ethical society (p. 248).”

Montgomery’s enduring lessons for cities (p. 250):

By spending resources and designing cities in a way that values everyone’s experience, life can get easier and more pleasant for everyone. We can make cities that are more generous and less cruel. We can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active, and more free. We just have to decide who are cities are for. And we have to believe that they can change. 

We just have to decide who are cities are for.

And we have to believe that they can change.


Assume for a moment that the city is exactly where we need it to be, asking of us exactly what we need to better serve our city habitat and ourselves.

Assume for a moment that we are right on schedule.



Happy mobility is in multiple modes


City life is as much about moving through landscapes as it is about being in them.
This is a critical point; not only does the city shape the way we move, but our movements shape the city in return.
Charles Montgomery (p. 176)


Here’s the psychological appeal of the car: mastery.  Charles Montgomery reports, in Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, that when the road is clear, drivers of their own cars feel “much more in charge of their lives than transit users or even their own passengers (p. 179).” This is how our relationship with cars started, with a sense of freedom and control. Yet over time, this experience of freedom and speed, on open roads, is not the truth of cities: “The urban system neutralizes their power. Luxury and sports cars might still offer their drivers a status bump, but the car’s muscles cease to matter when it is surrounded by other cars (p. 179).”

These are important words: the car’s muscles cease to matter when it is surrounded by other cars.

The result is this: people are not happy on their commutes.

Montgomery has found that self-propelled commuters “report feeling that their trips are easier than the trips of people who sit still for most of the journey (p. 181).” He goes on to note that these are sentiments of  people in American and Canadian cities, designed in ways that make walking and cycling unpleasant and dangerous. Further, in The Netherlands, “where road designers create safe spaces of bikes, cyclists report feeling more joy, less fear, less anger, less sadness than both drivers and transit users (p. 181).” He reaches this conclusion (p. 184):

  1. People are not maximizing happiness on their commutes.
  2. People are overwhelmingly choosing the most polluting, expensive and place-destroying way of moving.

How we move matters because it shapes who we are. Remember this: cities design our lives, and the city is a happiness project of our own creation. Our time in cars diminishes our happiness and the social fabric of our neighbourhoods. Further, “They are by far the biggest source of smog in most cities. They produce more greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than almost any other way of travelling, including flying by jetliner (p. 184).” We make our city habitats. We can remake our city habitats.

Here’s what Montgomery offers as a way to rethink mobility in cities; our approach to design needs to embrace and explore:

  1. Complexity in transportation and human experience (Eric Brittan via Montgomery, p. 198).
  2. Multiple modes of transportation. “Each of us has a unique set of abilities, weaknesses and desires. Each of us is compelled and thrilled by a unique set of sensations. Every trip demands a unique solution (p. 197).”
  3. Experimentation, thinking of the city as a laboratory that invites and rewards experimentation (p. 216).
  4. Physics and psychology of mobility (p. 216).

With the above, design principles emerge that generate happiness:

  1. Design for connectivity: more intersections mean more walking, and more disconnected cul-de-sacs mean more driving (p. 186).
  2. Design destinations within reach (p. 189).
  3. Feed active transportation and transit systems the resources they need. When starved, they are bound to disappoint (p. 193).
  4. Design choice into the city. Can you walk to work, or ride a bike? Can you catch a bus or train? Can you get to the doctor or a restaurant for supper without a car (p. 194)?
  5. Design for freedom for everyone, not just the brave (p.  211).
  6. Design for multiple modes of transportation. “Each of us has a unique set of abilities, weaknesses and desires. Each of us is compelled and thrilled by a unique set of sensations. Every trip demands a unique solution (p. 197).”

What’s in the way? The private car that uses 7.5 times more space than a person on a bus or a bicycle (p. 221). In part, it is the habits of professionals. It is also the choices we make as citizens.

The reasons why we like the car won’t go away – the perceived control of the car can also surface as real-time arrival data for bus/train users. As a psychological intervention, the wait feels shorter when you know what is happening, when (p. 202). We might also find the rewards of freedom from owning, when we experience the cooperative benefits of extreme sharing (bicycles, cars, public infrastructure). We simply need to build in the sense of control and freedom we desire into other modes of transportation.

We can all work on this: city hall and our public institutions, the business community, community organizations and citizens. This is the new mastery: choosing the city we want to generate together.

We can choose happy mobility.

We can choose a happy city.

We can choose to build the city to save the world.


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.



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:

Habits of professionals


Two ideas of Charles Montgomery:

… cities must be regarded as more than engines of wealth; they must be viewed as systems that should be shaped to improve human well-being…

The dispersed city lives not only in the durability of buildings, parking lots, and highways, but also in the habits of professionals who make our cities.

A question of mine:

What role do professionals have in the design of our cities – and our entrenchment, replication and expansion of our current city pattern?

In a recent post, Cities design our lives, I touched on Charles Montgomery’s notion of autopoieisis in cities: that cities, like many other systems, are prone to reproduce themselves. So what is the role of the professional in this process? The engineers, architects, landscape architects and city planners?

Let’s start by getting clear on the roles in city making.  Marilyn Hamilton offers four perspectives of the city, each of which has a distinct and essential role in the creation and recreation of the city (check out Integral City):

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

  1. Citizens express the centre of gravity of the city’s values. In democratic countries, citizens have the power to elect and criticize the other voices in the city.  They have power as intentional consumers. They express the power of engagement and intention.  They are the voice of the city spirit.
  2. Civic managers are the voice of city expertise; they are the guides  that oversee the needs of the city.  They are the people who work at city hall, school boards, health institutions on our behalf.  They are the voice of the city brain.
  3. Civic developers are the people who traditionally ‘conceive of, invest in and build the infrastructure of the city’.  These voices focus on the future – the vision and promise of the city.
  4. Civil society are the cultural voice of the city. These are the social organizations and non-government organizations that attend to the social needs of the city. They are the voices of the city’s heart.

While the dispersed city is the result of the habits of professionals, it is also the result of what we expect of professionals.  City-building professionals are city managers work in city hall, reporting to the elected officials who are chosen by the citizens. City-building professionals also work for civic developers (or are developers) who are responding to the consumer choices of citizens, as well as to the rules and incentives established by the civic managers. Moveover, all of these roles are responding to the cultural voice of the city and civil society.

These roles are a network of feedback loops that, all together, are the dance of city making. The city-building professionals shape the perspectives, and are shaped themselves by the perspectives. The habits of professionals have influence and are influenced.

This means that the whole city system needs to see, and make, the shift toward a more sustainable, or happy, city. We are all a part of it. And yes, there are habits of professionals – and everyone else’s habits in what is expected of professionals.

Professions support the status quo and push new things, but the new things only happen when the decision makers decide to make the new things happen. And those decision makers are everywhere: in city hall, in living rooms, in board rooms, and in community centres. Everyone’s work on the margin, promoting and trying out new ideas, is essential for us to see what else is possible for our cities.

Remember this: city-building professionals are required to serve the public interest.

In your city, who is talking about whether your city is serving the public interest?



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



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.