Vancouver writer Charles Montgomery fondly recalls when he was allowed to conduct experiments on residents of New York City. As a member of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, he worked with University of Waterloo cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard in designing studies to see how people react to their urban environment.
“We used skin conductance monitors, which measure the dilation of your pores,” Montgomery says during an interview in the lobby at SFU Harbour Centre. “So it’s a measure of arousal.”
According to Montgomery, Ellard also assessed participants’ subjective states by having them report how happy they felt on a scale of one to 10 in different areas of Manhattan. The researchers weren’t taken aback that the combination of these two measures suggested that people had better moods when they came across the natural environment in the city. Montgomery, who works at the Museum of Vancouver, notes that there was already a large body of evidence to support this.
“What was surprising to us was that the building façades could have such a strong effect on happiness,” he says. “We were surprised to see that people were much happier on a jumbled-up old tenement block with many openings and lots going on…than they were on a block outside a brand-new, pristine, sleekly designed Whole Foods with only two openings to the street. It’s interesting that one would make them happier than the other.”
There are many similar observations in his far-reaching new book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Doubleday Canada), which examines how cities affect health and enjoyment of life. The book opens with Montgomery cycling through the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, with then-mayor Enrique Peñalosa during the city’s annual car-free day. Peñalosa, known as the Mayor of Happy for his evangelical speeches on the topic at urban gatherings, imbued Montgomery with the notion that cities should strive to spread joy and freedom to their residents.
“I was compelled by the idea—by the possibility contained in that city-as-a-happiness-machine concept—but I didn’t believe it,” Montgomery says. “So it propelled me on a journey to find the answers.”
Happy City includes a generous helping of examples from Vancouver, along with stops in such varied locales as Copenhagen, Paris, Disneyland, Abu Dhabi, London, and the Bay Area in California. Montgomery reveals the true cost of long commutes on health, family life, and the pocketbook—it’s more expensive than you might think. He also highlights research showing why motor vehicles sometimes veer closer to cyclists who wear helmets, but are less likely to sidle up to those without headgear.
Drawing on the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl, Montgomery also mentions that if people are less happy on a certain block, they’re more apt to walk quickly. This lowers the amount of social interaction and makes the street less safe, potentially undermining public health.
“If we’re designing places that make it impossible for old folks to walk, it causes them to get weaker and older faster, and die more quickly,” he says. “There are distressing examples of design decisions in Vancouver that don’t take into account the need for fine-grained conviviality.”
Montgomery then discusses a Safeway store wrapped in two bank façades near the corner of Denman and Robson streets.
“We know that banks kill street life,” he says. “We also know that forward-thinking cities actually ban banks from having more than a few metres of façade on a street.”
He also maintains that Best Buy and Canadian Tire big-box stores have “killed the block” on Cambie Street on the south side of the bridge. Conversely, one block to the south there’s bustling street life outside a mixed-use project with condos above a Save-On Foods, a Winners, and a Home Depot.
“You have three big-box–style stores on a block, but you would never know walking along the street because the developers were encouraged to line the street front with small shops,” he says. “Amazingly, this is good for everyone. It’s good for street life, it’s good for the city, and it’s also good for the property owner, who earns a much higher lease per square metre on those mom-and-pop shops than [from] the big boxes.”
However, Montgomery says the region’s biggest design challenges in the coming years will be in the suburbs. Municipal governments are in the midst of major reconfigurations of Lower Lonsdale, Brentwood, Surrey Centre, and downtown New Westminster, to cite four examples. He emphasizes that simply adding density doesn’t guarantee a vibrant streetscape.
“It’s the city’s job to zone and legislate, to nudge and maybe wrestle developers into creating more equitable and social and convivial landscapes,” Montgomery says. “They won’t do it on their own. It’s unreasonable to expect them to.”