Happy Cities

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What makes us happy is different for everyone. During the post-World War II boom, the key to happiness was equated with a life in the suburbs, accumulating more wealth and more possessions. The personal automobile and a house on a cul-de-sac were the ultimate status symbols. However, we have reached a point where societies are tepidly breaking free from the status quo and reevaluating what actually instills happiness in the places we call home.

Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City brilliantly illustrates the correlation between urban design and “the science of happiness.” His novel offers harrowing lessons for urban spaces that wish to break free from path dependency. The reoccurring facts pertaining to the model of sprawl are interwoven throughout the text yet bear repeating again. The dispersed city is vulnerable to rising energy prices, is eroding the mental and physical health of citizens, is increasing the prevalence of social isolation and ultimately fails to maximize the happiness of all residents. Our current system is economically, environmentally, socially and from a public health perspective unsustainable.

However, Happy City’s true merit lies beyond these traditional warnings. It reinforces the fact that the city is a shared project. It is a place where we can choose to create mutual values and goals. This is the foundation of a resilient city. These pillars of our social and urban fabric are impossible to build alone. As Montgomery states, “our fate is a shared one.”

This is immensely important to the contemporary city. Developing a shared common good not only creates a bond between citizens, but also makes us happier. It turns out that strengthening social ties has a large impact on overall life satisfaction. The problem facing the North American metropolis is that the existing urban fabric is designed to accommodate the automobile and the privatization of space.  Relationships cannot be developed in isolated communities that do not have safe, walkable streets. Nor can they be fostered without engaging and inviting public spaces. And they are certainly harder to maintain when commute times steal our precious time with family, friends and colleagues.

While this reality may seem bleak, there are many examples of cities around the world that have diverged from traditional planning practice and spurred unimaginable results. Copenhagen, Bogota and New York City all conducted temporary experiments in urban mobility, which transpired into lasting policy decisions. On June 7th 2014, Toronto has an exciting opportunity to test new infrastructure and ideas that are locally driven. 100 in 1 Day (hyperlink to Star article) encourages citizens to provide solutions to our diverse urban challenges. As Happy City demonstrates, a city that acknowledges and celebrates its common fate, that opens doors to empathy and cooperation will tackle the greatest challenges of this century together.

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