Walking Towards a Happy City: An Interview with Charles Montgomery.

Walking Towards a Happy City: An Interview with Charles Montgomery.

Walking Towards a Happy City: An Interview with Charles Montgomery.

The Walk21 conference in Vienna will discuss walking from various perspectives with a major focus on how walking can help us create livable urban environments. Many will agree that one major aspect of livability, the comfort that we have in a certain place, relates to how happy we can feel in a certain place and how joyfully we can engage with the spaces we live and spend our time in.

At Walk21 Vienna, one of the leading authors in this field of urban happiness, Charles Montgomery, will be a plenary speaker. We spoke to him before the conference to find out why happiness is important for people engaged in building future cities, where happiness can come from in our society, and what we have to consider to foster happiness within our communities. The interview was conducted by Florian Lorenz from the the Walk21 Vienna Management Team.


Water, play and happiness during heatwave in Zurich 2015. Image: Florian Lorenz, PlanSinn.

In 2013 you published your book “Happy City – Transforming Our Lives Through Design”, which is one of the most discussed recent books in the field of urbanism. Can you tell us about the main idea behind the book?

Happy City explores two ideas:

First: The shape and systems of cities really can boost or break happiness, although they do so in ways that most of us never imagine. In an age when people spend so much time and money on self-help, what we really need is city-help: programs that build health and wellbeing by understanding the relationship between our minds, our bodies and the places we inhabit.

Second: I also found a surprising link between human and environmental well-being. The doomsayers who insist that we need to sacrifice happiness to take on the urgent challenges of our time are wrong. The happier city can be not only easier on the planet, but a more convivial, empowering, healthy and fun place to live. So if we want to save the world, we should be focusing on building happier cities.

“Happy City” brings together many leading voices from the field of urbanism presenting their work and aspirations. What brought you to write the book and what was that journey about?

The journey began with a bike ride through Bogotá, Colombia, chasing the mayor who had used that unhappy city as a testing ground for his ideas on happiness. Enrique Peñalosa insisted that by transforming the form and systems of his impoverished and violent city, he had made citizens happier. He also argued that most rich cities—especially American cities—are designed in ways that actually destroy happiness.

Could a city really be redesigned to build happiness? It was a thrilling idea. I spent most of a decade testing the idea against science and evidence from other cities. The quest led me to the doorsteps of neuroscientists, psychologists, behavioral economists and activists, as well as sites of remarkable urban transformation around the world. It also led me to start conducting my own informal urban experiments to understand the link between design and happiness.


Dancing in Bogotá's central pedestrian street, La Septima. Image: Florian Lorenz, PlanSinn.

Hawker in Bogotá's central pedestrian street, La Septima. Image: Florian Lorenz, PlanSinn.

In your book you define happiness not merely as related to getting pleasure but also, and maybe more importantly, as related to how we may become an active and interacting member of society. You claim that cities are precisely such environments where people have more opportunities to be active and, as a result, happy citizens. Why does such engagement with the people around us make us happy?

Social connectedness is the most powerful driver of human happiness. People with strong, positive relationships with family and friends are happier, healthier, and more productive. They live an average of 15 years longer than people who are socially isolated. Meanwhile, psychologists have found that positive encounters with total strangers are good for happiness. They produce an immediate hormonal response. They make us trust our fellow citizens more. That’s good for happiness, and good for the economy: cities and societies in which people express high levels of trust in neighbors and strangers are both happier and wealthier. But our cities can either draw us together or push us apart through design.

So we need to ask city builders these questions:

How can we design environments that foster trusting relationships and/or encourage trust-building encounters?

How can we create environments and systems that enable people to spend more time with family, friends and community?

How can we use design to help people feel more control over their social interactions by enabling them to advance or retreat as they wish?

Next to your work as author you are also principal of the consultancy “Happy City”, where you create “transformative conversations, experiments and stories about cities, science, and human well-being“. You collaborate with “partners from the arts, social sciences, public institutions and business”. If I were to hire you as consulting “experimentalist”, how can we imagine that process?

Well, we’re not performing magic tricks! Our work is about helping people translate the evidence on wellbeing into local urban design principles. Sometimes we do that through immersive workshops for planners, politicians and developers. Sometimes we conduct happiness design audits of urban neighbourhoods. And sometimes we create experiments to give people a better understanding of the ways that design influences how they feel, move and treat other people.

Recently, for example, we used volunteers posing as lost tourists to test the altruism of pedestrians in various street environments in Seattle. It turns out that people are kinder on street edges with more small shops, services and cafés.

Walking in central Stockholm. Image: Florian Lorenz, PlanSinn.

Let’s come to the upcoming Walk21 conference in Vienna, Austria where you are one of the plenary speakers. What are your expectations for Vienna as a city and for the Walk21 conference this year?

Vienna is carrying a heavy burden. The city keeps coming out on top of livable city lists. But I know from my own experience living in Vancouver that winning awards for livability does not mean you automatically win the happy city sweepstakes! Still, I look forward to learning from the city and from the walkable city heroes who will be gathered there at Walk21.

The Viennese are often referred to as people who can moan about their troubled lives while at the same time actively enjoying themselves sitting in the wine taverns overlooking the city. (This is also reflected in the famous Wienerlied tradition.) Is it possible to be happy and content because you enjoy a great quality of life while at the same time grumbling about your life being difficult?

If there’s one thing that psychologists have learned about our species in the past couple of decades, it’s that we are frequently wrong in our assessments of what makes us happy. Viennese people may be absolutely certain that they have it rough, and at the same time be made happier by their urban condition than people in other cities. Consider the question of traffic congestion. People complain about automobile traffic in great cities all over the world. But here is the thing: Traffic congestion is a sign that your city is thriving.  If you want a place where cars can move freely, then you need to move to the abandoned core of broken American cities like Detroit or Buffalo.

Vienna sidewalk concert. Image: Mobilitätsagentur Wien, Sebastian Philipp.

Walk21 Vienna will be addressing, amongst others topics, how well-functioning public spaces are designed, what qualities they offer and how walkable they are. What qualities does a public space have to offer to allow people to feel happy?

A happy public space is one that is full of people. It is a place that gives people the opportunity to connect with each other if they wish, and the opportunity to retreat.

Do walkable public spaces make people happier than less walkable ones?

We all agree that walkability is the goal. That’s why we are gathering in October. The question is: How can we create places that make walking feel wonderful, rather than a chore? It’s about more than just making space for pedestrians. We have got to understand the ways that streets, sidewalks, architecture and other systems affect how we feel and move.

Thank you very much for the interview. On behalf of the Walk21 Vienna Team I can tell you that we are looking forward to continuing the conversation during Walk21 Vienna!

Vienna urban contradiction and surprise. Image: Florian Lorenz, PlanSinn