The theme for this month's First Tuesday Event was the environment, so we were lucky enough to be invited along as guest speakers! We chose to speak about biophillia (check out next week's blog) and Charles Montgomery's 'Happy Cities', our most recent bookclub read. So we thought for our blog this week, we'd share thoughts about what makes a happy city. 

“The happy city, the green city and the low-carbon city are all the same place and we can all help build it.”

In the book, Charles Montgomery takes us on a journey- a journey of his experiences of city living across the world, as well as taking a journey through time, looking at the different approaches city planners and architects have taken towards building a happy city.

Historically, city streets were for everyone; the road was a market, a playground, a park and a thoroughfare. When cars were first introduced, there were thousands of road accidents, with pedestrians being the majority victims. Because of this, cars were resisted by people living in cities. However, people then begin to see cars as a chance for ‘freedom of movement’. Cars were slowly integrated more into city design, along with pedestrian crossings and traffic lights to try to manage the traffic flow. Later cities were developed for cars over people, and multilane roads were built- now Dubai’s main street has 14 high speed lanes and is impossible for pedestrians to cross for miles at a time.

As a result, to escape these busy, traffic congested cities, people began to move out of the city, to suburbs and countryside, in order to to enjoy the benefits of more space and cheaper homes. Montgomery believes there are flaws in these decisions, and these flawed choices have helped to shape the modern city and consequently the shape of our lives.

The further that we move out of the city, the longer our commutes become, costing money, creating pollution and making us grumpier. It came as a surprise to me that living in the city is better for the environment. People living in suburbs can generate up to twice as much CO2 as those living in dense cities. And people are aware of the science of climate change- the bizarre weather and natural disasters are just the beginning. However, many of us are guilty of simply being ignorant to the problem as Montgomery describes, ‘climate change does not scream at us in the night or sting like a bee’. Which means people have no urgency to take action. To change this he suggests we need to appeal more to self-interest. He states ‘the sustainable city has got to promise more happiness than the status quo. It has got to be healthier, higher in status, more fun and more resilient than the dispersed areas.’

So we look to the facts about the effects of cities on our happiness- as an incentive to live more sustainably. It has been found;

 ‘a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life than someone that walks to work’

‘a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love’

Ultimately he found that the further we lived out of the city, the less time we had to spend with friends and family and enjoying our homes, instead spending more time commuting to work.

He goes on to talk about design for social cohesion, design to eliminate danger and crime, freedom and collaborative consumption (another fascinating topic, a form of sharing; a new, more sustainable economy that values access and experience rather than owning, for example Spotify, air BnB, etsy-to learn more check out the amazing Ted Talk by Rachel Botsman.)

So Montgomery, after producing many facts and examples, suggests that to be happier we need to go full circle with city design. We are already seeing examples of this, such as designing out cars, so that the city is once again for people, for markets, as a playground, for socialising, for parks (Something I think Nottingham is doing really well and people are fully embracing). We want to encourage people to move back into the city, and create a community within it – reducing distances so that you can not only walk to work, but also walk to meet friends for dinner and to walk in the park. It is also found people are happier in livelier streets with lots of windows and doors, vs blocks of new developments with less interest at street level. Take for example the streets of Hockley, friendlier and happier vs the streets that run alongside the Broadmarsh or Victoria centre. This is another important point about the way in which we are designing cities.

Most importantly, we need to be using nature as a key design feature. Happy cities must include nature. Montgomery recommended small, daily doses of nature. He suggests that measuring m2 of green space per person does not tell us much about each person’s nature diet. Comparing London and Vancouver; he suggests that although London has a third more green space, Vancouver feels greener as it forms more of a part of people’s daily routines and habitats.

There is extensive reserach into the positive effects that nature has on our health and wellbeing. Montogomery states that people who lived next to green spaces knew more of their neighbours. Police found mountains of data that linked lack of green space to local crime rates. He even found that the more trees we put on the sides of the road, the slower we drive.

Motogomery summarises perfectly stating; if together we create a greener, slower, more sustainable cities, even if this means it is slightly more expensive than living out of town, we will help to eliminate poverty, inequality and climate change. We need to think more about the emotional effect of what is being built around us.

 

This is just one of the books we have read in our Green-thinkers book club. Green-thinkers is a ‘network of book clubs that discuss environmental and sustainability issues from energy to wildlife, economics to education’

It began in Newcastle, and we now host the Nottingham meeting. We meet every couple of months, enjoy some food and drinks and great conversation. We have read a variety of other books so far; putting a price on nature, re-wilding the world and learning about egdelands.

We are really keen to expand our group and get more people joining the conversation. We want to hear your book recommendations and you don’t need to have a specific interest in the environment- people from all disciplines are welcome. For more details, click here to join the facebook group or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.