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Don't worry, be happy

Charles Montgomery has been making the rounds promoting his new book Happy City. I'm very much looking forward to reading it, and noted a few reasons below the interview link. Check out this excellent short interview from Streetfilms:

This is one of those topics that could fill reams of books from a variety of angles, and I'm ecstatic to see it getting international play. We're so eager to measure everything from traffic counts to carbon to housing prices, but so reluctant to try and measure or discuss basic qualities of humanity. Does a certain design affect our visual interest or make us more aware? Does a public space make us feel safe or afraid? How do people show their happiness?

In the interview, Montgomery mentions some neuroscience research he's been conducting to discern what people find most pleasing. For example, he cites that when people are exposed to nature, they feel happier and significantly more aroused. That's likely one reason that people are more creative and thoughtful while walking outdoors. The idea of "walking meetings" is catching on, for example.

But he goes well beyond that, in search of what truly makes people happy in the built environment. A key conclusion: people are happiest where it's more social and there are more people. He surmises that's the case because a "city is most successful when it facilitates great relationships between people." A key part of a happy life is to feed our social animal (as I also note in my 11 step recipe.) According to Montgomery, people who feel the most joy and least fear, rage or sadness walk or bike to work or school.

Now, this is where it all starts to get interesting. I completely agree with those assertions - it's obvious to me just through years of experiencing the world and observing people. But we do have to be careful to watch out for, as my wife often reminds me, the difference between correlation and causation. It's entirely possible that people that are more social and more happy to begin with are choosing environments that reinforce that behavior. And likewise, people who suffer from depression or social anxiety may disproportionately choose to locate in places (like a lot of suburbs, exurbs or rural areas) where social interaction is rare. With human behavior, it's not always black and white.

That lack of simple cause and effect answers is one of the key flaws, for example, of much traffic engineering. Jane Jacobs once wrote of the profession, "In what traffic engineers have chosen to do and have recommended, they have abandoned and betrayed science as it is understood." Why did she criticize it so harshly? Because traffic engineering is really a social science, not a physical science. And yet, it's often treated as the latter.

When the inputs for engineering are mechanical or industrial, we can control for outputs and create remarkable devices. Aerospace engineers, industrial engineers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers - these people have all ushered in the modern age through the use of the applied sciences. Traffic engineering's primary input however are human beings, which are by nature fickle and constantly changing. Some human actions are very predictable; others can confound us. This doesn't mean there aren't very bright and good people working in the field -far from it. But the basic premise that humans are as predictable as circuits, relays or steel beams is flawed.

Planning and design are as much art as science, which is why Montgomery's book and this topic is compelling. And it's why I advocate for some admittedly fuzzier measures for successful places. Not everything is as simple as measuring the size of a public space, a building or a transportation solution. These variables are constantly in flux, as are our human qualities.

It's also why I can be harsh at times with my fellow architects. Too many people in my chosen profession are more interested in being clever and cool (in an effort to please their own peers) instead of creating attractive, humane streets and public spaces. The mindset that demands constant invention within architecture leads talented people to ignore simple, time-tested solutions and demean "nostalgia." Sadly, the results are often brutal and devoid of any joy or whimsy, which we so desperately need in our daily lives.

So, what to do then, you may ask? My suggestion is designers would be best served by proceeding with a mix of data and intuition; some science and some observed experience. It doesn't take years of research to know that Paris makes people happier than Houston; or that a beautiful public plaza or square induces more social behavior than a strip mall with its parking lot. In fact, I like to use these guideposts as a starting point for what people need for maximum happiness:

  1. A cave to call their own
  2. A place to socialize, informally
  3. Easy connections to nature
  4. Freedom of movement
  5. Small moments of joy & whimsy

For more on this, you can read about my personal perspective on happiness and the social experience in my book, Why I Walk, where 1/4 of the book is devoted to the topic.

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