Charles Montgomery has a stately name, but he doesn’t exactly sit around in a plush robe smoking a pipe. Charles is a doer with a curious mind who explores cities around the world to discover what it is that makes us happy (it turns out it isn’t ice cream).
Years of research on the correlation between happiness and urban design led to his book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. Charles was quick-witted and also quick to laugh during our interview, increasing his credibility for the title of “happiness expert.”
Read on for more about what it takes to be an urban experimentalist and why Pharrell Williams might not have the whole story when it comes to happiness.
You have researched urban happiness, but what if we flipped the switch? Do you know what makes people unhappy in urban environments?
The very worst thing for urban happiness is a long commute. There’s a direct correlation between the length of your commute and how happy you are with your entire life. The longer your commute, the less happy you will be. It’s because a long commute has a systemic corroding effect on your relationships. It means less time with families and friends and less opportunities to connect with new people.
Having such an interest in happiness must mean that your living situation is extremely important to you.
I live in a very special neighbourhood in Vancouver. I moved here accidentally 10 years ago. This neighbourhood as a system has changed my life. Everything in my community is a 5-minute walk away. A 5 minute walk to a bus, a 5 minute walk to my grocery store, a 5 minute walk to a swimming pool, a 5 minute walk to a park. We live a lot of our lives on foot. We have face-to-face contact with a lot of people throughout the day.
So contrary to popular belief, people are more important than Starbucks locations. Since you travel a lot in the name of research, tell us about your favourite places.
My favourite place in the world is my neighbourhood. One city that has done happiness very well is Copenhagen. It’s very connected and easy to get around. They are promoting complete freedom. You can choose how you want to move.
My other favourite place in the world is Mexico City, which breaks all the rules. It is a huge, chaotic mess. But Mexicans make up for it by creating wondrous social spaces in between the horrors of interchanges and congestion.
So doesn’t attitude have something to do with it?
(laughs) My book argues the opposite of Pharrell Williams’ theory that we can decide to be happy. I argue that the city can bring you down. He is partly right; we can choose to be happier in our cities by reaching out to other people and realizing that people in cities are worthy of our trust. The truth is, if there is a concrete wall in between us we won’t be able to connect. In many places, there are walls of distance.
Do you suggest that a disgruntled city-dweller should pack up and move?
Moving can help. However, in my research I have realized my heroes are not the people who give up on their cities. They stop waiting for governments and they back their own neighbourhoods. In New York City, a group of activists got together with their allies and demanded change. You see a total transformation in their city and it was led by activists.
How can we make a difference in our own cities if the city planning is not up to snuff?
We need to acknowledge that the environment we move through changes the way we think, move, feel and treat other people. We need to build places that boost positive feelings. This means privileging the pedestrian. Walking matters for the social city.
Also, the more fine-grained detail and activity you have on your street edges, the more social people become. We tested how people treat each other in these areas by sending people out to pretend that they were lost tourists. People were much more likely to get help on active blocks with lots happening, like small shops, bars and restaurants. Active street ends not only makes us happier, but also kinder.
A big statement indeed. Check out more about Charles on his website, or watch his TEDx Vancouver talk from this October to be posted shortly.
We will be sure to extend the invitation to Pharrell.