The Sit Down: Charles Montgomery

Image Courtesy Lee Satkowski

Your new book, Happy City, examines how urban design impacts our lives. What are the origins of that idea?
In 2007, I traveled to Bogotá, Colombia and took a bike ride with Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor and livable-cities evangelist. For me, it was a life changing experience. First off, it was a hair-raising adventure chasing this guy around his city, always on a bike, but more importantly, he was insisting that he had used his short time in office to transform Bogotá in the name of happiness. He claimed that he had used design to make citizens happier. That was such a compelling message and yet, being a journalist, I left the city skeptical. Could the city really be a machine for happiness? Could we redesign places, buildings, streets and systems to maximize happiness? I wanted evidence. I became obsessed with the notion and started looking for evidence both in urban experiments around the world and in the so-called science of happiness, in behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience.

So what did you find out? What makes a happy city?
The most powerful ingredient of human happiness is that mix of positive social connections with family, with friends, even with acquaintances and strangers. That’s what gives our lives richness, that’s what keeps us strong, that’s what keeps us healthy, that’s what gets us through hard times and that, more than anything, is what gives our lives meaning and joy. So what makes a happy city is design and policy that creates healthy, active lifestyles, that makes a city more fair, that maximizes fun and minimizes hardship, that makes a place safe and supports a thriving economy. But the element that binds them all is social: A social city is a happy city.

What does that mean in terms of a city’s design?
I found pretty strong evidence both in the heroic and sometimes tragic stories of American commuters, as well as in research on the power of place, that the way we design our streets, our public places and our transportation systems influences how we feel, how we behave and how we treat other people in ways that most of us never realize. So, examples: When I worked in New York City with the BMW Guggenheim lab, we tested the emotional effect of streetscapes on the Lower East Side. I worked with a neuroscientist named Colin Ellard. We tested both the self-reported happiness effects of a place, as well as people’s physical responses tracked through skin conductance cuffs.

“The way we design our streets, our public places and our transportation systems influences how we feel.”

We found a couple of things: Number one, people were happiest when exposed to nature. We didn’t dump them in the wilderness, but even small splashes of wilderness on city streets—trees, landscaping—cheered them up. But I think more significantly, we found that people were much happier along a block of old tenement-style street frontage with lots going on—doors, windows, bars, cafes. People were much happier there than along a block that had been rebuilt using Modernist principles to feature a big box Whole Foods with only two openings on the entire block.

How does transportation fit in to the happy city equation?
The most glaring effect that cities have on our social lives involves dispersal. In the book, there’s a chart that shows the relationship between commute times and happiness. It’s very simple: The longer your commute, the less happy you are. People who endure more than a 45-minute commute are actually more than 40 percent more likely to divorce. This influences not just our internal life but our home life. It strikes me as so tragic that the wealthiest economies on the planet have produced urban systems that steal time and ease from people’s lives and that corrode their relationships. That said, I’m interested in not just efficiency of transportation systems, but how they feel. If we don’t pay attention to how it feels to move, then we’ll never get urban mobility right. We all make choices based on what we think will makes us happy. Surveys around the world show that people who walk or bike to work experience more joy and less fear, rage and sadness than all other commuters. Driving comes second and transit comes last. Now transit—it’s no surprise that it comes in last because in most cities, transit is still treated as a handout to the unworthy poor. It’s underfunded, it’s slower and buses almost always have to wait behind the most inefficient vehicle on the road—the private car. What I find curious is the fact that something like only one or two in 100 Americans bikes or walks to school. Now, if an activity is clearly the most efficient at producing happiness, why aren’t more people doing it? The answer is pretty simple: Our cities design our behavior. In the dispersed city, which most people call sprawl—where all functions are separated by miles and miles—the distances are too great. That’s why the same person living in suburban Atlanta is likely to weigh ten pounds more than if they lived in Midtown Atlanta, a connected, mixed-use, walkable, old-style neighborhood. But even in central cities, few people are biking.

“Research has shown that something like 60 percent of the population is interested in cycling but feels it’ too scary or uncomfortable to do.”

The voices from motordom suggest that there just isn’t that much interest in cycling. We have to call bullshit on them. Research has shown that something like 60 percent of the population is interested in cycling but feels it’s too scary or uncomfortable to do. That means biking on an open road is too scary, biking on a painted bike lane is too scary, biking on a sharrow is too scary. Biking on a safe, separated bike lane is comfortable, but it is also too scary if you don’t complete the network. If I have a two-mile journey to make by bike and one of those miles is on a protected bike lane and one of the miles isn’t, then the journey is still too scary. Until we can design our cities in ways that respond to the basic psychology of moving, then people aren’t going to move differently. We are stealing freedom from children, from older people, from anyone who doesn’t feel like driving.

Your book has received a lot of attention. It’s been excerpted in a stack of magazines and newspapers, you’ve done a great deal of interviews, and I imagine it’s selling well. Now, it’s a very good read, but do you attribute the success to anything else? Have you tapped into a certain zeitgeist?
I think it’s pretty simple, actually. Even people who claim not to like cities tend to live in them. We all have a sense that, as Enrique told me years ago, we need to build cities differently. We now have an opportunity to do that. We know that American cities will grow by 100 million people in the next 40 years. How are those people going to live? How are our systems going to configure our urban lives? Now is a chance for people who care about their cities and who care about the future and who care about happiness itself to get involved and help shape the city of the future. What I tried to do in Happy City was make an invitation. Our cities are malleable. They can change. And all of us can play a part in that change. I think your organization, Transportation Alternatives, provides a terrific inspiration in other cities. When I speak in cities around the world, they point to New York City and say, “Isn’t it great what Bloomberg did to transform the streets?” I tell them, “You shouldn’t just credit Bloomberg: those changes happened because of a concerted, heartfelt and cunning grassroots campaign led by Transporation Alternatives and its allies.” It’s you who put the pressure on Bloomberg, it’s you who invited neighbors around the city to take ownership of their streets. I think if people in other cities saw what really happened in New York City, they would be in awe of T.A. and its community.