Happy City | Charles Montgomery

Summary of: Happy City: Using a New Science to Heal Broken Cities and Save the World
By: Charles Montgomery


In ‘Happy City: Using a New Science to Heal Broken Cities and Save the World’, Charles Montgomery dives deep into the evolution of urban planning and how it affects the happiness of residents living within those cities. The book discusses how suburban living, originally intended to improve life, has led to longer commutes and less satisfaction. Montgomery raises the importance of common spaces, the role of nature within city landscapes and the balancing act needed in designing happy cities. Throughout the book, he offers solutions and examples of urban planning successes to inspire a more thoughtful and holistic approach to creating cities that cater to our happiness.

The Unhappy Suburban Life

In the past, urban planners thought towns should be spread out to have a more comfortable environment by creating suburbs. However, people these days are not satisfied living on the outskirts of major cities anymore since they have to spend more time commuting to reach any destination. According to research, an extended commute negatively affects people’s satisfaction with life, leaving them exhausted and with less time to socialize. Moreover, despite the good intention, living in suburbs did not make people happier in practice. As people seek to have social relationships as their primary source of happiness in life, cities need to turn things around to make their citizens happy again.

Creating Better Public Spaces

Urban planners can bring people closer by creating better car-free public places that are kept clean and tidy.

Urban planners create public spaces to bring people together, but not all common spaces are equal. Traffic can make public parks less enjoyable, leaving people feeling unsafe and unwilling to spend time outside. Studies show that living on a street with heavy traffic can decrease the number of local friends and acquaintances. Urban planners in Copenhagen found a solution when in 1962, the City Council decided to ban cars from driving on downtown roads creating Strøget.

The experiment initially had its critics, but Strøget became an instant hit with happy urban residents walking, chatting and watching the world go by. Banning cars is not the only solution to creating better public spaces to socialize, but keeping them neat and tidy is equally crucial. Cleanliness creates feelings of safety and care, attracting many visitors, including the elderly.

Creating better public spaces requires careful planning and design that meets the needs of the community. Urban planners should consider various approaches that are suitable for different people. When designing public spaces, consideration should be given to what the residents need and what kind of space would best serve them.

In conclusion, urban planners can bring people closer by creating better public spaces, making parks, streets, plazas and other public spots more enjoyable. By banning cars from busy streets, whether temporarily or permanently, and keeping public spaces clean, cities can encourage social interaction and provide residents with a moment of respite.

The Power of Small Natural Spaces

Urban planners can use small natural spaces to improve the moods of city-dwellers. Tiny gardens filled with various flora can bring happiness to people passing by. Research shows that having a dense and diverse array of plants and animals in parks creates a more positive emotional response in visitors. City design can encourage interactions among people. People who interact with nature and other people on a daily basis are happier and more productive. The key is to find ways of integrating nature into public spaces, even if these spaces are small. The benefits of a nature-filled urban environment are clear – nature boosts our emotional well-being and creates vibrant and cohesive spaces.

Happy Cities: Balancing Social Interaction and Privacy

Crowded cities can lead to isolation due to sensory overload. Urban planning should balance social interaction and privacy to make people happier.

Living in a busy city can sometimes result in feeling lonely or needing more alone time. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram found that the crowdedness of cities leads to isolation. When we’re surrounded by bustling crowds, our nervous system tends to get overwhelmed, and we’re more likely to create protective barriers by distancing ourselves from others. This phenomenon is also apparent in an experiment conducted in 1973 by psychologist Andrew Baum. Students living in a corridor-style dorm complained of stress and unwanted social interactions, while those living in suites were more likely to engage with each other.

The ideal city should offer social environments that balance privacy with opportunities for interaction. This means urban planning should aim to create spaces that encourage limited social groups while maintaining privacy. However, creating a city that does this is challenging since the process of urban planning is complex, and there are significant biases that urban planners need to overcome.

To create a happy city, urban planners need to find a balance between social interaction and privacy. While it’s essential to incorporate spaces where people can connect, it’s equally important to ensure that people can find some solace and tranquility in the crowded city. By creating spaces that offer a mix of social interaction and privacy, urban planners can create a city that is both bustling and environmentally sustainable.

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