Happy cities, affordability and prosperity: in conversation with Charles Montgomery.

Charles Montgomery creates transformative conversations about cities, science and human well-being.

He’s an award-winning author. He helps planners, city builders and regular people find new ways to see and change the world around them. And his team works with citizens to turn their cities into living laboratories, using psychology, neuroscience and design activism to improve the places we call home.

We had a conversation with Montgomery, digging into a topic that is top of mind for everyone in the South Island Region: affordability.

Is an affordable city a happier one? What happens when people migrate to the suburbs? How can we make our cities places where people trust, work together, and support one another?

Click on the play button below to hear our conversation. And if you simply want to check out the highlights, read on.

 The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts or opinions of the organization.

Prominent Points shared by Charles Montgomery

Does economic development contribute to a happier city or not? It all depends how we define happiness, and for whom.

Good transportation, a healthy economy, enlightened social systems – all these elements are vital, but at the core, the goal is to develop social trust, equity, and connections. And unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of growing inequity – both in the developing world and right here at home.

Saying we’ve “created a system that pushes people to places like the suburbs” is a cognitive trap. People aren’t necessarily ‘pushed’, as the cliche goes. They choose to move, believing their lives will be better in a suburb. Unfortunately, this decision leads to other, unexpected types of unhappiness. What we’ve done is create a system that helps people make decisions that – in the long run – negatively impact their happiness.

The false promise of more affordable housing at the end of a long commute can be an illusion. Factor in hours spent commuting, the maintenance cost of a vehicle, and the infrastructure costs that are passed along to taxpayers, and you see that the economic benefits are illusory.

There is plenty of room to move more people into the central city, without creating a jungle of high rises. We have created a binary system that only allows for two types of housing – super-dense high rises, and single family dwellings. What Charles suggests is a hybrid- ‘gentle density’ – developments that house eight to twelve families, perhaps even with shared facilities, in city neighborhoods. That creates just enough density to trigger the development of  schools, shops, and great transit.

Who is the city for? Who is the land for? The city needs to remember that the city is for all of us. And we also need to remember that we don’t just own the land – we own the air above us. We can build up, as well as out.

Psychologists, tactical urbanists and neuroscientists, have shown the connection between public spaces and people’s perception of life and happiness.

Quotable Quotes

“I was inspired by people like Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, who redesigned his city in the name of happiness.”

“It’s easy to point to developing world when we talk about inequity that spurs unhappiness. But there are growing examples of inequities here at home.”

“My job isn’t to change political system. But I want to make happiness more equitable here.”

“When you grow your road network to meet the demand of more commuters, and you don’t build in other options, you create more demand. The road system fills up again within 4-5 years.”

This isn’t a good vs evil discussion. It’s a discussion about maximizing utility and happiness.”

“More supply doesn’t necessarily solve the issue of more affordable housing. Governments need to take on the issue of tenure, designating who gets what housing, and at what price.”

“When you empower local communities, it’s good for everyone. And by the way, there’s a strong connection between place attachment and GDP growth. You want to come back, and stay. That grows prosperity.”

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