The British newspaper The Guardian ran an edited excerpt last
week from Charles Montgomery's most recent book, "Happy City:
Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design."
In the excerpt, Montgomery, who has written extensively about the
link between urban planning and human wellbeing, asks the question
"Is urban design really powerful enough to make or break happiness?"
His answer is (not surprisingly) a resounding "yes."
"If one was to judge by sheer wealth," he writes, "the last half-
century should have been an ecstatically happy time for people in
the US and other rich nations such as Canada, Japan and Great
Britain. And yet the boom decades of the late 20th century were not
accompanied by a boom in wellbeing. The British got richer by more
than 40% between 1993 and 2012, but the rate of psychiatric
disorders and neuroses grew."
Research has suggested, he adds, that "the seemingly inexplicable
gap between rising income and flatlining happiness" has a lot to do
with declining social capital -- "the social networks and
interactions that keep us connected with others."
Social deficit and the shape of cities
And that's where bad urban planning -- especially the 20th
century's singular emphasis on automobiles -- comes into the
Writes Montgomery (with English spellings):
There is a clear connection between social deficit and the shape
of cities. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a
45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. People who live
in monofunctional, car?dependent neighbourhoods outside urban
centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live
in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops,
services and places to work.
A couple of University of Zurich economists, Bruno Frey and Alois
Stutzer, compared German commuters' estimation of the time it took
them to get to work with their answers to the standard wellbeing
question, "How satisfied are you with your life, all things
Their finding was seemingly straightforward: the longer the
drive, the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as
numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive
satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. People were choosing
commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found
that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to
be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the
other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a
short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new
Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling On
Happiness, explained the commuting paradox this way: "Most good and
bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them.
However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant
than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a
larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time.
But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every
day is a slightly new form of misery."
The sad part is that the more we flock to high-status cities for
the good life -- money, opportunity, novelty -- the more crowded,
expensive, polluted and congested those places become. …