Can in­fra­struc­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture aect ci­ti­zen hap­pi­ness?

Charles Mont­gomery’s quest to un­der­stand hap­pi­ness be­gan with other emo­tions. The Van­cou­ver au­thor was angry when stuck in traf­fic on Kingsway; he felt alone sur­rounded by mil­lions of peo­ple in Hong Kong; when he moved from Lil­looet to Van­cou­ver, he felt

Vancouver Magazine - - News - by Petti Fong

Q: You went from be­ing a skep­tic to be­liev­ing that cities have a role to play in peo­ple’s hap­pi­ness. How have you changed in the four years since the book was pub­lished?

A: I was pes­simistic. But I think we’re now see­ing a move­ment of peo­ple who see the con­nec­tion be­tween land and cap­i­tal and re­silience and so­cial jus­tice. I see gov­ern­ments tak­ing baby steps. Van­cou­ver, like de­sir­able cities around the world, is just wak­ing up to this po­ten­tial, as are places like Lon­don, New York, Mex­ico City, Hong Kong. They’re all search­ing for ways to keep the lo­cal strong. Cities flour­ish when they serve the peo­ple who live and work there.

Q: How is keep­ing “the lo­cal strong” build­ing hap­pier cities?

A: Peo­ple who are able to re­main in their com­mu­ni­ties form more sup­port­ive, trust­ing lo­cal re­la­tion­ships. Res­i­dents who en­joy ro­bust se­cu­rity of ten­ure aren’t wor­ried about be­ing dis­placed dur­ing eco­nomic or other crises. This was some­thing I wasn’t cer­tain about at first, but as I pulled to­gether ev­i­dence from en­vi­ron­men­tal psy­chol­ogy I started to see a con­nec­tion be­tween the way things are built and the sys­tems we cre­ate, and the ev­i­dence on hu­man well-be­ing.

We have two crises in this city and they’re syn­er­gis­tic: the cri­sis of af­ford­abil­ity and the cri­sis of so­cial dis­con­nec­tions.”

The ev­i­dence is there; we see it in health out­comes, we see it in life ex­pectancy and the shape of our bod­ies, but we also see it in our brains and our ner­vous sys­tem.

Q: There’s a cer­tain feel­ing peo­ple get, or at least I know I do, when they see their city as they’re ar­riv­ing from the air. What’s the feel­ing you get when you fly into Van­cou­ver?

A: On the one hand I feel a deep love, and on the other hand, in­creas­ingly, I feel af­fec­tion­ate concern. That this place is chang­ing—ev­ery­one I know feels it. It’s an un­der­cur­rent of anx­i­ety about the fu­ture. Not some kind of ex­is­ten­tial or philo­soph­i­cal concern, but con­cerns about their own lives, and the ques­tion many peo­ple I know face is, it’s my home now, but for how long? I work on a team of seven peo­ple and some of them refuse to move here be­cause they can’t af­ford it, and oth­ers are wor­ried that they’ll have to leave soon.

Q: Why do they feel like they have to leave?

A: With ev­ery pass­ing day, they’re less able to af­ford to live here. Which means they feel the run­ning sense of anx­i­ety and know they have to work hard to stay, so that ends up mean­ing they have less time for fam­ily, friends, fun and cre­ativ­ity. All the things that make life worth­while.

Q: Re­cently there was as­tudy that says Van­cou­ver is the most un­happy city in Canada. What do you think is caus­ing that?

A: In all caps I want to say: we’re not an un­happy city com­pared to all cities glob­ally. Are we less happy than other ma­jor Cana­dian cities? Yes. But com­pared to Amer­i­can cities, we’re do­ing well. De­spite all that, this is a concern. Peo­ple’s level of anx­i­ety, their sub­jec­tive well-be­ing, points to a prob­lem.

Q: Is af­ford­abil­ity the rea­son we are less happy than other Cana­dian cities?

A: It’s been iden­ti­fied that hap­pier cities are the ones where peo­ple trust their neigh­bours. What’s driv­ing low hap­pi­ness in Van­cou­ver? Yes, it’s af­ford­abil­ity, be­cause that causes us to work hard and leads to a hy­per-mo­bil­ity where peo­ple don’t stay long, and that re­sults in asense of dis­con­nec­tion.

Q: Is un­hap­pi­ness a cri­sis?

A: We have two crises in this city and they’re syn­er­gis­tic: the cri­sis of af­ford­abil­ity and the cri­sis of so­cial dis­con­nec­tions. They share some of the same causes, but the good news is that the solutions for one can be ap­plied to the other. We can tackle both of these chal­lenges at ex­actly the same time.

Q: Who should be in charge of mak­ing us a happy city? Politi­cians? De­vel­op­ers?

A: We’re all in charge of mak­ing the change. When I say “all,” I’m talk­ing about politi­cians, res­i­dents, ac­tivists and de­vel­op­ers as cru­cial part­ners. Some peo­ple may not be­lieve this, but many lead­ers in the prop­erty de­vel­op­ment world re­ally do give a damn about build­ing health­ier, hap­pier places.

Q: Do you think we’ll ac­tu­ally be happy in 25 years? Or will we set­tle for just be­ing able to af­ford to live here?

A: Hon­estly, I think it de­pends on the choices we make right now. We’re either go­ing to be a cap­i­tal bank for va­ca­tion­ers and the world’s wealthy, or we’re go­ing to be a city that of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties, homes and jobs, and so­cial rich­ness for peo­ple who want to in­vest not just their cap­i­tal but their lives here.

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