Surely no real city ever got built for the sake of happiness. No, the places we live in must be responses to much bigger and more important, less ephemeral things, aren’t they? They must be brought forth by great and willful people marshalling the forces of history, technology, capital? Then happiness comes along later, for a while, here and there and usually by accident, maybe.
What if we reversed this proposition? Can we take human happiness as our starting point when giving shape to community? What is wrong with us that we seem not to be doing so?
Montgomery wants us to be happy. Presumably we do to. How will we get there? Well, looks like building out North America’s suburban sprawl at the cost of many tens of billions of dollars a year since the 1980s is exactly not the way to go about it. This isn’t about personal taste or some generation-specific set of preferences. Sociological surveys, done at large scale and to good standards of accuracy, indicate that plowing vast tracts of land and our socioeconomic life into commuter and aesthetic hellaciousness is a disaster. Yeah, there’s an awful lot of anti-depressants in use in the most well off societies.
The author supports his views early on through the growing science of happiness. It is a very real and measurable thing, happiness. Your health and general quality of life soar when you have it, both crash when you don’t. The latter is whacking the United States and Canada and other places with a huge and growing bill. The numbers are in, pretty much. It’s in our best interest personally to design communities that enhance our well-being. Good thing, too. Sprawl as known in North America is unsustainable environmentally.
A felicific calculus of psychology and design favours places where we can moderate our social interactions and economic role to suit us best, transport our bodies with ease and safety, feel a certain level of connected equality with our fellow citizens and receive an aesthetic lift from our surroundings, especially by having nature in them. This scientifically verifiable prospect comes from a convergence of design practice and psychological state that literally gives us a reason to live.
It works, though happy cities are in critically short supply. Montgomery has built a fairly groovy career out of the happy city – along with others he is extending a body of thought traceable to Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s. She went up against the cars and the interstate highway builders like Robert Moses in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Montgomery, a native of Vancouver, starts us out in Bogota, Colombia.
Not long ago it was an obscure capital – with quality of life almost at rock bottom. Things were so bad for so long there that something crazy, like embracing the happiness of the citizenry, was a dire necessity. Bogotans were facing much worse problems than North American super-commuters and other Edge City dwellers. The crime, poverty, crowding, pollution, automotive mayhem, noise and general sense of catastrophe and hopelessness had almost crushed civil society in Bogota.
Then happiness came along. The mayor who led the way is now a sought-after rock star who has made consultancy stops everywhere from Manila to Toronto, New York, Singapore, Los Angeles and Mexico City. Of course it isn’t perfect but perfection is not the point, happiness is.
Again, this happiness-by-design thing is not a quirky, hippy undertaking. Nor is it based on some obligatory formula of streetcars, bike lanes and cafes. It isn’t about going back in time. Happiness-building design can be applied to traditional cities and brand new places belonging to pretty much any culture and climate and takes a variety of physical forms. It’s mainly about respecting how people best like to array themselves in their various roles and places of activity and finding ways of supporting that.
Just reading about what’s involved with the idea of a happy city makes you feel better, puts oxygen rich blood into your brain, releases oxytocin, lowers blood pressure and boosts the immune system. Don’t fight it.
Happy City earns suburban-poverty.com’s highest book review accolade possible which is when we go over to the window, open it up and say “read this book” to the world.
It’ll make you happy.
Part of the corporate bike fleet got encased in frozen rain over the weekend. We did it on purpose because we knew our bikes would be useless during the storm and cold but that they’d develop a sculptural winter beauty all their own. Even just looking at a bicycle seems to lift the mind. This item tells you how cycling is good for your body’s science. It’s even good for your skin, did you know that? Brrrrr.
image: bicycles in Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons
While it is nice to dream about bicycle superhighways, smart growth economies and groovy architecture coming to our rescue we also have to confront the realities of human thinking and conduct regarding poverty. Introducing to the glossary a new word: infrahumanization. This is a process of belief in human relations, particularly group relations.
It’s an assumption that outgroups from your own experience life at lower levels of emotional complexity and nuance. To infrahumanize others is not the full on dehumanization found within the promotion of hatred and historical situations of invasion, repression and mass murder. Rather it is “above” those horrifying states which is what makes it so sticky and difficult. Infrahumanization represents the interplay of fear, sympathy and respect in one group for another in general society. It is usually seen as simply an acknowledgement of reality by one party to it and is a highly internalized phenomenon.
Particularly when the poor and the socially excluded, youth, social welfare recipients, criminal offenders and the disabled are seen this way it becomes a pernicious, divisive phenomenon expressed in widely held attitudes and thence official policy. Infrahumanization can be in effect up and down the social ladder as well as laterally. It tends not to involve violence and full on hatred but nourishes instead a lower key distance and loathing based on the assumption that the experience of the other group or individual is simply not as full or sophisticated as it can or should be for human beings and results in a corresponding reduction of that group’s status in the eyes of other groups and therefore society at large.
Infrahumanizing benefit claimants
image: Ishupragun via Wikimedia Commons