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Where is My Happy City? By Sam Veraldi, CAPP
appy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery is one of my favorite books. The general theme of Happy City is that happiness and renewed interest in urban life could be linked together. After many decades of urban sprawl, people are becoming more inclined to move back to the city. Our heavy dependence on automobiles during the last 70 years has created congestion, an over-reliance on multi-lane highways and overbuilt parking structures, and a migration away from the urban core. Higher density in urban development has been described as the savior for our future because research points to the simple fact that urban sprawl is unsustainable. In Happy City, Montgomery focuses on linking happiness and urban design. On the happiness side, he concludes that people are relatively poor at making choices that maximize their well-being. On the urban design side, he points out the powerful influence city design has on people’s moods and behaviors. City planners and developers need to pay attention to the research on what creates happiness to design cities that enhance the satisfaction of those who reside in them. It’s our job—the American public—to help planners and developers understand this critical concept.
Commutes and Happiness Montgomery suggests that those who have a 90-minute, one-way commute experience less happiness and feel that they have an inferior quality of life. At one point in my life, my round-trip commute was three hours—on a good day. While I loved the location of our home, my commute was miserable every day. Each commute was capped off with making it home so late and so exhausted, that I couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful home we had. And yet, there I was the next day doing it all over again. It is not that Montgomery is sug-
gesting people shouldn’t have long commutes, but rather that planners and developers should concentrate on constructing properties closer to the city. He favors a connected life—one that incorporates the research-backed belief that green space should be an important part of design criteria, not an optional luxury. As Montgomery says, “It is part of a healthy human habitat.” Green space invites people to establish casual and regular relationships with others they meet through proximity. It doesn’t have to be in large examples like Central Park, but more in pocket parks and green strips that provide pedestrians with mental refreshers on their daily trips around the city. This isn’t a new concept. It was in the writings of Aristotle 2,400 years ago. It was in the words of Jane Jacobs when she spoke about her neighborhood in the early 1960s. In Happy City, Montgomery cites a study in the mid-1990s conducted in a low-rise social housing complex in Chicago by two environmentalist psychologists, Francis Ming Kuo and William Sullivan, who found that no one would hang around in barren courtyards. In stark contrast, green courtyards—no matter how well kept—always remained
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active. In addition, the study concluded that those who lived around the greener courtyards were happier, friendlier, and less prone to violence than those who lived in the barren courtyards.
Case Studies Vancouver Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada has an urban core of a 20-block peninsula that is bound on two sides by the sea and capped by the magnificent rain forest of Stanley Park. Since the late 1980s, more than 150 residential towers have been developed with Vancouver’s population nearly doubling between 1991 and 2005. Vancouverites rushed back downtown at a time when their American counterparts to the south fled to suburbia. Vancouver consistently ranks as one of the best places to live by Forbes and Mercer and has the lowest carbon footprint of any major city on the continent. One of the key attributes of the downtown area is that it faces the north and west to capture the beauty of the mountains, rainforest, and ocean instead of buildings or the sun—which only appears occasionally through a steady flow of rain clouds each year.