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How to Make Your City Happier

How to Make Your City Happier

Photograph by Tom Griscom/Gallery Stock

I was angry when I arrived at the Guggenheim for the Happy City launch party. The No. 6 subway train hadn’t been that crowded for a Saturday night in Manhattan, which made it all the more irritating when a woman sat down beside me, with several shopping bags hanging off each shoulder. One ended up on my lap. When I moved it aside, she snapped, “What’s your problem?” I suggested she put her bag on the floor. We both got off in a huff.

The author of the new book, Charles Montgomery, has spent a lot of time thinking about such perils of public transport. In fact, one experiment at the launch event was called Subway Squeeze, in which volunteers wearing sensors were packed into ever-tighter spaces. The result: rising levels of stress and body temperature, leading to increased anger and irritation. In another test, strangers who acted like old friends for a photo were more likely to believe their lost wallet would be returned than people who didn’t pose. Meanwhile, two groups of volunteers were offered $10 to sit in a booth for 10 minutes, staring at an image. Those who looked at bucolic scenery, with birds chirping, were more likely to donate the payment to charity than those forced to look at a brick building with sirens and honking in the background.

The “laboratory of happiness,” as Montgomery calls it, illustrates his thesis that people function best in spaces that let them connect to nature or each other. Those lessons are already embedded in urban design that promotes bike lanes, green space, and neighborhoods with commerce close by. What distinguishes Happy City is the compelling link that it draws between relatively simple moves and profound shifts in the public mood. A messy, active streetscape makes people much happier than a modern, coiffed one. We are more satisfied when we live within walking distance of a store. The longer the commute, the less satisfied someone is likely to be with everything in his or her life—regardless of house size or income.

The challenge, of course, is that cities tend to be shaped by policymakers and urban planners. But Montgomery also suggests things individuals can do. Among them:

Stand near the door. Psychologists have found that people who stand in front of an elevator’s control panel feel less frustrated and hemmed in than those in the back.

Greet the crossing guard. Such light, breezy relationships make a neighborhood feel familiar, increasing trust and optimism. Talk to strangers.

Trade the tower for low-rise living. People in high-rise apartments tend to be lonelier, less connected, and less happy than those who live closer to street life. If you don’t have a stoop to sit on, try to spend time in piazzas or other areas where people hang out.

Walk through a park. Not only does the act of walking make you fitter and more connected, it turns out nature is only a mood lifter if you take time to physically experience it. Volunteer in a community garden; eat lunch in a park.

Ride a bike. If you can’t commute to work by bicycle, ride it to the corner store or rent a bike when you travel or go downtown.

Design your own common space, however small. It could be a bench in the foyer or a piazza on your street corner. Anything that encourages people to congregate and chat leads to happier people and happier cities.

Like the late Jane Jacobs, who famously opposed Robert Moses in his push to build an expressway through her beloved Greenwich Village, Montgomery is a firm believer that cities function best when they’re kinder to people than to cars. While the Vancouver-based author isn’t the first to find that urban design can lift or crush the human spirit, he builds a convincing case for a new metric of success. The best way to judge a city is not through its median income or soaring architecture, he suggests, but through the happiness of those who live there.

Brady is a senior editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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