This is the second of two blogs about Charles Montgomery: the first one recapped his talk at the Inspire Speakers Series on May 14; this one is about his book, Happy City, and includes more of my own reactions and reflections. This article is not meant as a synopsis and makes no claim of completeness nor of objectivity – it merely reflects what resonated with me and why, in the hope of amusing or provoking some of you readers. Cheers.
Appropriately, Montgomery addresses the big issue of what exactly is happiness early in the book. He suggests that “happiness” may not even be the right word, except that English does not have a better one. The ancient Greeks did, though: eudaimonia.
On page 36 he quotes psychologist Carol Ryff channeling Aristotle: “Aristotle offered us the image of a cow in the field, contentedly chewing its cud. He was absolutely clear that this is not what eudaimonia is about! It’s about getting up every day and working very hard toward goals that make your life meaningful, sometimes in ways that are not at all conducive to short-term contentment. In fact, it may not be about contentment at all. It’s all about the realization of talent and potential, and the feeling that you are able to make the most of your abilities in life.”
Which reminds me once again that so many lessons are universal. Not only do Aristotle’s thoughts connect me to the Eight Fold Path, especially precepts 4 through 7:
But these words also connect me to Doug Robinson’s thoughts in The Alchemy of Action. In this book, venerable climber Doug Robinson makes the point that we are most truly alive and most truly happy when we are working hard at a task, focused, and truly in the moment pursuing a goal. He equates this to “flow,” those moments when we are tired, sweating, a little bit scared, and yet totally engrossed and totally enthralled with what we are doing.
Better Living Through Chemistry
Montgomery makes a point that oxytocin is a powerful chemical in our brains that arises when we develop trust in other people. Creating social ties builds trust that raises oxytocin levels, which, he suggests, leads to the Happy City. This remains remarkably similar to Doug Robinson’s main point that we don’t seek complacency nor do we seek a constant adrenaline rush – what we seek is the powerful brain cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, which happens naturally in those magical moments of focused effort that many of us live for.
Curious how a lot of this can be boiled down to raw chemicals in our brain. And pretty darn simple chemicals at that.
Montgomery states that “happiness” is a good goal for cities. Cities can create happiness, he says, through good design. It’s not until page 156 that he paraphrases sociologist Erving Goffman, but this single metaphor captured the essence of the book for me. Montgomery writes, “life is a series of performances… [and] if this is so, then public spaces function like a stage in the same way that our own homes and living rooms do. Architecture, landscaping, the dimensions of the stage, and the other actors around us all offer cues about how we should perform and how we should treat one another.” Bravo. (And special thanks for resisting the urge to quote the melancholy Jaques in “As You Like It.”)
The book uses several chapters to explain why the current city/suburb design (“stage”) is broken. Specifically, they lack:
- Social Ties
Montgomery spends an entire chapter explaining this topic, nature. Being a life-long avid outdoorsperson, this chapter especially excited me. Many times I had to mark passages with stars and underlines.
Like page 111: “Nature is not merely good for us. It brings out the good in us.”
Or page 112: “We like open views, but we also like to feel safe – values that [geographer Jay] Appleton called ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge.’ (I note that these exact concepts have already taken root in many aspects of biophilic design. For one of the best documents explaining biophilic design, I recommend 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design by Terrapin Bright Green.)
Or page 114: “The ‘messier’ and more diverse the landscape, the better.”
Or page 115: “What is crucial for healthy living is not quantity, but regular exposure, daily doses of nature. So the trick is in finding ways to infuse nature, and nature complexity, into denser places.”
Or page 157: “The researchers suggest that being high up or the mere act of ascending, reminds us of lofty ways of thinking and behaving.” (Which resonates with me as a mountain climber. After all, the great yogis all sit at the summit of the mountain, don’t they?)
Or page 183: “The best way to fix a dark mood is take a walk.” (Contrasted with the car culture that not only decreases pleasure, but simultaneously increases harm!)
People are social, says Montgomery. Some more than others, but we all seek out others. And just like cars (he argues), if we make more spaces for people, we will get more people.
Montgomery mentions the agora, the ancient Greek meeting place where citizens could meet, discuss, argue, and allow democracy to happen. At the last Inspire Speakers Series, Terri Baltimore told the story of the Court of Ideas that once existed in the Hill District and represented some of the best notions of a community coming together. In so many ways, there is just no substitute for actually showing up.
I couldn’t help but think of some of the truly social places in Pittsburgh where people arrange to meet a friend, but also go because they know they will see other people there – the remade Market Square, Schenley Plaza, the lobby of the William Penn hotel, or even the Saturday morning nightclub known as Whole Foods.
It makes me wonder how we create more of these spaces, and whether they are always designed or sometimes just happen organically? What if Pittsburgh allowed and finally had more buskers and food trucks? Could we catalyze the formation of more Pittsburgh agoras? What if Pittsburgh transformed the surface parking lot directly across from City Hall on Grant Street into green park space? Can you imagine the tremendous ideation that could happen in such a space so close to the city’s center of power? (Thanks for this idea, Matt Smuts.)
Montgomery equates the building and zoning codes to the operating system in a computer. They both drive the process and define what is or is not possible. On page 281, he goes so far as to say that the code, not people, shapes the city.
In my limited experience, I have to agree. And sometimes we can’t do better even if we want to. Not only has Pennsylvania not passed the 2012 ICC Building Codes, but it apparently will not be adopting the 2015 codes anytime soon either, leaving us several versions behind using the 2009 code that ignores much learning, design, evidence, and new technologies that have occurred since then. Meanwhile, the state completely ignores the ICC’s International Energy Conservation Code and the International Green Construction Code and makes it impossible for a city like Pittsburgh to adopt even a voluntary stretch code or parallel code without enabling legislation in Harrisburg. Crazy and frustrating.
Montgomery’s suggestion: “Don’t fight the code, take it over.”
How do we mobilize citizens for such community-wide purposes? Again, Montgomery suggests the need for community spaces. Sometimes one person will get fed up enough, angry enough, motivated enough, and has sufficient personal capacity to take on a challenge and make a significant change.
But this is hard. And scary. And time-consuming and energy-sapping. The government, the code officials, the financiers, the real estate industry are all way more powerful than most of us mere individuals. And while we have some success stories, lots of people also lose their David vs. Goliath battles and the world is not any better off. Which reminded me of TC Boyle’s World’s End, in which the protagonist attempts to fight the powers and then not only loses the battle for himself but dooms every subsequent generation of his descendants to similar desperate fates. Sigh. Don’t want to go there.
Better, says Montgomery, to make it a community effort. There is power in numbers. There is energy and determination and resiliency in a community that decides to take on a mission. Which brings us back to the need for social places, social ties, trust, conveners, participation, and showing up – a Court of Ideas.