Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery

My takeaways from this interesting book about Urban Planning.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery 

“A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” he announced. 

“In the final decades of the last century, Americans increasingly complained of personal problems. By 2005  clinical depression was three to ten times as common as it was two generations ago. By 2010, one in ten  Americans reported that they suffered from depression. Six to eight times as many college students experienced depression in 2007 as they did in 1938. Although this may be partly due to cultural factors—it’s now more acceptable to talk about depression—objective mental health statistics are not encouraging.” 

“Each philosopher argued for a slightly different version of it, but after a few decades of debate Aristotle summed up the emerging view thus: everyone pretty much agreed that good fortune, health, friends, power, and material wealth all contributed to that blessed state of eudaimonia. But these private assets were not quite enough, not even in a city-state where citizens could experience all of life’s hedonistic possibilities. Existing for pleasure alone was a vulgar state befitting animals, he argued. A man could achieve pure happiness only by reaching the height of his potential, and that meant not just thinking virtuously but behaving virtuously too.” 

“The pursuit of happiness has never delivered anything like Wright’s Broadacre City. Instead, it has led millions of people to detached houses with modest lawns—houses purchased with loans from huge financial institutions —far from employment, in the landscape now commonly known as suburban sprawl. This, the most common urban form in North America, has some roots in the American notions of independence and freedom that Wright espoused. But those roots go deeper, tapping into a particular way of thinking about happiness and the common good that reaches all the way back to the Enlightenment.” 

“But this interpretation ignores a few inconvenient truths. First, as I will explore in this book, our preferences— the things we buy, the places we choose to live—do not always maximize our happiness in the long run. Second, sprawl, as an urban form, was laid out, massively subsidized, and legally mandated long before anyone actually decided to buy a house there. It is as much the result of zoning, legislation, and lobbying as a crowded city block. It did not occur naturally. It was designed.” 

“If money isn’t everything, what is the full recipe for happiness? Adam Smith’s followers in classical economics have never produced a plausible answer, but the surveys offer a few. People who are well-educated rate their happiness higher than those who aren’t. Employed people are happier than unemployed people—even in  European states where generous welfare policies insulate citizens from the most destructive effects of unemployment. Life satisfaction is strongly influenced by location.* People in small towns are generally happier than people who live in big cities. People who live next to the ocean report being happier than those who don’t.  Living under the flight path of commuter jets is terrible for happiness.” 

Her all-star eudaimonia checklist is worth listing. It includes: • Self-acceptance, or how well you know and regards yourself • Environmental mastery—your ability to navigate and thrive in the world • Positive relations  with others • Personal growth throughout life • Sense of meaning and purpose -Feelings of autonomy and independence 

“Helliwell and his team have run several iterations of the World Values Survey and the Gallup World Poll through their statistical grinders and have found that when it comes to life satisfaction, relationships with other people beat income, hands down. For example, these polls asked people if they had a friend or relative to count on when needed. Just going from being friendless to having one friend or family member to confide in had the same effect on life satisfaction as a tripling of income.” 

“The balance shifts back and forth with philosophy, politics, and technology. It exists in the relationship between private and public resources and landscapes. It lives in the ways we use conspicuous architectures to set ourselves apart. It exists in the height of walls, the distances between our homes, and even the means and velocities of our travels. The pursuit of urban happiness demands that we acknowledge the real needs embodied in this tension and find a way to balance their contradictions. But we should never forget this fact: even though the modern cosmopolitan city makes it easier than ever for individuals to retreat from neighbors and strangers,  the greatest of human satisfactions lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people. No matter how much we cherish privacy and solitude, strong, positive relationships are the foundation of happiness.”

“The truths of happiness science should also lead us to accept that Enrique Peñalosa and his fellow travelers are right: cities must be regarded as more than engines of wealth; they must be viewed as systems that should be shaped to improve human well-being.” 

“The Social Deficit and the City Just before the crash of 2008 a team of Italian economists led by Stefano  Bartolini tried to account for that seemingly inexplicable gap between rising income and flatlining happiness in the United States, using the statistical method known as regression analysis.* The Italians tried removing various components of economic and social data from their models, and they found that the only factor powerful enough to hold down people’s self-reported happiness in the face of all that wealth was the country’s declining social capital—the social networks and interactions that keep us connected with others. It was even more corrosive than the income gap between rich and poor. 

“As much as we complain about other people, there is nothing worse for mental health than a social desert. A  study of Swiss cities found that psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, are most common in neighborhoods with the thinnest social networks. Social isolation just may be the greatest environmental hazard of city living—worse than noise, pollution, or even crowding. The more connected we are with family and community, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and depression. Simple friendships with other people in one’s neighborhood are some of the best salves for stress during hard economic times—in fact, sociologists have found that when adults keep these friendships, their kids are better insulated from the effects of their parents’ stress. Connected people sleep better at night. They are more able to tackle adversity. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.” 

“Stockton has developed the worst youth gang problem in California. The city faces issues of poverty and immigration, but poor parent-child bonds and weak social ties were key contributors to gang membership. “If we have parents who take care of their kids, provide love and affection, how much of this gang activity would we be curtailing?” asked Stockton mayor Ed Chavez in frustration back when the county was still pitching itself as a  rosy alternative to the inner city. 

When she studied teenagers from affluent suburbs in the Northeast, Columbia University psychologist Suniya  Luthar found that despite their access to resources, health services, and high-functioning parents, these teens were much more anxious and depressed than teens from inner-city neighborhoods who were faced with all manner of environmental and social ills. The privileged suburban teens smoked more, drank more, and used more hard drugs than inner-city teens, especially when they were feeling down. “The implication,” explained  Luthar, “is that they are self-medicating.”

“Not that there wasn’t pushback. A local real estate developer took the village of Euclid, Ohio, to court to stop it from using zoning to block his industrial aspirations in 1926. That fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme  Court. The village won, and shortly thereafter, the federal government gave all municipalities the same power.  Since then, it has been illegal in most American jurisdictions to deviate from very narrow sets of rules governing how cities should be built or altered. Zoning laws and development codes specify what you can build and what you can do on your land. They specify the dimensions of lots, setbacks, and houses long before any of us gets a  chance to move to a new neighborhood. Most powerfully, they strictly separate places for living, working,  shopping, and recreation. Functional segregation was built into almost every new suburb after World War II.” 

“The rapid, uniform, and seemingly endless replication of this dispersal system was, for many people and for many years, a marvelous thing. It helped fuel an age of unprecedented wealth. It created sustained demand for the cars, appliances, and furniture that fueled the North American manufacturing economy. It provided millions of jobs in construction and massive profits for land developers. It gave more people than ever before the chance to purchase their own homes on their own land, far from the noise and haste and pollution of downtown.” 

“Dispersal has drawn cities into a zero-sum game: as it distilled and privatized some material comforts in detached suburban homes, it off-loaded danger and unpleasantness to the streets of dense cities. It reverberates  in the car horns that wake Brooklynites at dawn, and it gets sucked into the lungs of Manhattanites who choose to walk to work.”

“Meanwhile, dispersal starves the budgets of cities forced to spend sales tax dollars on roads, pipes, sewage, and services for the distant neighborhoods of sprawl, leaving little for the shared amenities that make central-city living attractive. The fact that residents in America’s central cities report being even less satisfied and even less  socially connected than people in suburbia is not a testament to the superiority of sprawl, but a by-product of received hardships and the pervasive, systemic effects of dispersal.” 

“The house was perfectly habitable, but it did not resemble the ones pictured in the home and garden magazines that my co-owner, Keri, collected. The place was cut through with awkwardly angled walls and floored with barbershop checkerboard linoleum. The century-old timber frame swayed and lurched in time with any romance conducted on the top floor. It was a little too dark, a little too drafty, and, we decided, a little too cramped. So we signed papers on a second mortgage in order to raise that creaking frame, strip it down to the studs, and transform the place into the home of our dreams. We figured that nine-foot ceilings, reconditioned fir floors, an open-plan kitchen, two living rooms, an extra story, and a couple of extra bathrooms should do it. Like millions of our fellow middle classers, we were sure that the extra square footage would make us happier, despite the quarter-million dollars we had to borrow to get us there. We pictured ourselves sipping wine under blown-glass pendant lights while summer breezes wafted in from the patio.” 

“Humans do not perceive the value of things in absolute terms. We never have. Just as our eyes process the color and luminosity of an object relative to its surroundings, the brain constantly adjusts its idea of what we need in order to be happy. It compares what we have now to what we had yesterday and what we might possibly get next. It compares what we have to what everyone else has.” 

“Framed this way, the happiness function would have served our prehistoric ancestors really well. Hunter-gatherers more oriented to dissatisfaction, those who compulsively looked ahead in order to kill more game or collect more berries than they did yesterday, were more likely to make it through lean times and thus pass on their genes. In this model, happiness is not a condition at all. It is an urge genes employ to get an organism working harder and hoarding more stuff. The human brain has not changed much in the ten thousand years since we began to farm. We have been hardwired for active dissatisfaction.” 

The curious part was this: most students said that they knew that social life would be more important to their happiness than architecture, yet they still put greater weight on physical features. This is the standard mis weighing of extrinsic and intrinsic values: we may tell each other that experiences are more important than things, but we constantly make choices as though we didn’t believe it.” 

“Lucky for them, the Harvard students were merely predicting their happiness. They weren’t actually able to choose their home. In the rest of the city, millions of people get the happiness calculus wrong, time and again,  and have to live with the consequences for years.” 

equivalent of a 4,880-square-foot glass mansion on three acres. Estimated construction cost in real life: $3.5  million. As sure as that house was pink, its dimensions will be transposed onto the aspirations of a generation of girls who grow up playing with it. I once attended a Christmas party at the house of a single gay man in suburban Seattle. The Christmas tree was huge, and it glistened with lights, but my most striking memory was of his vast living room, his four bedrooms, and his spacious yard. It was clear that except on rare occasions, the house was empty. Nobody slept in three of the four bedrooms. No children played in the yard. The utility of all that square footage lay almost completely in its symbolism. It reminded my host of the convivial home he grew up in. But at the end of the night, his friends drove a dozen-odd miles back to their apartments in Capitol Hill,  leaving him alone with his tree.”

“Partly because sprawl has forced Americans to drive farther and farther in the course of every day, per capita road death rates in the United States hover around forty thousand per year. That’s a third more people than are killed by guns. It’s more than ten times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11,  2001. Here’s an image that sticks: imagine a loaded Boeing 747 crashing every three days, killing everyone aboard. That’s how many people die on U.S. highways every year. Globally, traffic injuries are the greatest killer of ten- to twenty-four-year-olds.* A rational actor would be terrified of suburban roads. A rational policy maker would wage war, not on other nations, but on traffic deaths.” 

“Any clear-eyed analysis confirms that this city and the way we inhabit it pose a direct threat to the well-being of the planet and, arguably, the future of our species. And any rational assessment of well-being should account for risks faced by our children and their descendants. The logical response to these converging crises would be to alter our individual and collective behavior in order to stave off disaster. It demands using less energy and raw materials. It means moving more efficiently and moving shorter distances. It means living closer together and sharing more spaces, walls, and vehicles. It means collecting experiences rather than objects.” 

“You could live your life here, working, shopping, eating, socializing, and falling in love, all on foot. It was dense, convenient, connected, and endlessly stimulating.” 

Every few days, groups of fresh volunteers walked the neighborhood with our tour guides, offering up their psychophysiological data in return. We found that as the urban terrain varied, so did people’s emotions. People reported the biggest spike in happiness, and an easing of arousal, just moments after entering the gated M’Finda  Kalunga seniors’ garden in Sara Roosevelt Park. That was even before the gardeners introduced them to the resident chicken. This did not surprise us. The garden was almost junglelike in its variety of leafy plants, shrubs,  and mature trees, and the last few decades have produced powerful evidence that simply being in, touching, or  viewing nature makes people feel good. Hospital patients with views of nature need less pain medication and get  better faster than those with views of, say, brick walls. Even simulating a view of nature can help. Heart surgery  patients exposed to pictures of trees, water, and forests are less anxious and report less severe pain than those  who have to gaze at abstract art all day. 

When the researchers began examining police records, they found a mountain of hard data that linked lack of  greenness of courtyards to local crime rates. Buildings that looked out on trees and grass experienced about half  the violent crime level of buildings that looked out on barren courtyards. The less green the environment, the  higher the rate of assault, battery, robbery, and murder. This is especially remarkable given the fact that  criminologists have pointed out that bushes and trees provide convenient cover for illicit activity.

The artists thus demonstrated what hundreds of studies into human landscape preference over the last few  decades have shown. Most people really like savanna-like views, typically characterized by moderate to high  openness; low, grassy ground vegetation; and trees that are either scattered or gathered in small groups. Our  preferences are collectively precise: when given a choice, people say they would rather look at trees with short  trunks, layered branching systems, and broad canopies. These happen, of course, to be the sorts of trees and  landscapes that nurtured our hunter-gatherer ancestors for thousands of years, including during the era that saw  the human brain expand faster than any brain had in the course of animal history. Evolutionary theorists argue  that we are genetically inclined to like such landscapes because liking them helped our Paleolithic ancestors  survive. 

This means we need to build nature into the urban system, and into our lives, at all scales. Yes, cities need big,  immersive destination parks. But they also need medium-sized parks and community gardens within walking  distance of every home. They also need pocket parks and green strips and potted plants and living, green walls.  As Gil Peñalosa once put it: cities need green in sizes S, M, L, and XL. Otherwise the human ecosystem is  incomplete. 

Underperforming or unused transportation infrastructures are fine terrain for biophilic retrofits. The High Line,  the decommissioned elevated rail line converted into a nineteen-block linear park on Manhattan’s West Side, is  most famous for the bird’s-eye glimpses it offers into offices, private living rooms, and down to the street from  viewing platforms that turn evening traffic into rivers of light. But much closer are hundreds of species of flora,  from chokecherries and willows to creeping raspberries and autumn moor grass, much of which had already  

begun to colonize the abandoned platform before its conversion. The High Line’s natural caress draws visitors  into a playful intimacy. On one warm day I joined a group of strangers who had removed their shoes and  splashed in a toe-deep pond amid the wispy moor grass. 

McDowell and his neighbors were testing out a law of social geometry identified by Danish urbanist Jan Gehl.  In studying the way people in Denmark and Canada behave in their front yards, Gehl found that residents chat  the most with passersby when yards are shallow enough to allow for conversation, but deep enough to allow for  retreat. The perfect yard for conviviality? Exactly 10.6 feet deep. 

These new friendships are not trivial. Nine years on, McDowell babysits his neighbors’ kids and keeps spare  keys for their doors. His fellow town house dwellers dominate the building’s management board. They vacation  together. Where the tower pushes people apart, the town house courtyard draws them closer. He considers half  of his twenty-two town house neighbors to be close friends.

The key to making a profit, said Condon, was to get that math right. The developers assumed (quite correctly,  we now know) that most people are happy to walk five minutes, or about a quarter of a mile, from home to  shops and streetcars. But in order to provide that critical mass of paying trolley riders and property buyers, they  needed to keep residential lots relatively small. The typical street frontage for a single-family house in  Vancouver’s streetcar neighborhoods was just thirty-three feet, delivering at least eight homes per acre (which  makes neighborhoods from two to eight times as dense as many modern suburbs*). Schools were small, too,  with classrooms stacked two or three stories high to make room for playgrounds. As it turned out, the geometry  of profit also created a near-perfect scale for happy living. Market streets were lively and bustling, while the  residential streets behind them were quiet and leafy. Most people got their own house and yard. There were  porches rather than front garages, so people could keep their eyes on the street. Kids had the freedom to walk to  school. Without modern suburbia’s massive yards, wide roads, and strict segregation of uses, almost everything  you needed was a five-minute walk or a brief streetcar ride away. In the streetcar city, greed helped produce  density’s sweet spot. 

Here is that terrain: In front of the house there is a yard, a little over thirteen feet deep. All the twelve yards on  this street are small enough to make gardening a relatively minor task, and so every stroll leads past a parade of  flowers and shrubs and fruit trees. Four minutes’ walk away, there is a grassy park where old men play boccie  every afternoon and holler at each other in Italian. Five minutes away, down the hill, there is Commercial Drive,  a market street of remarkable plenitude. Two minutes up or down that street are a post office, a hardware store,  an Italian grocery store, two Chinese veggie markets, a bakery, a fish shop, a parade of coffee shops, two used furniture stores, some low-rise apartments, a few bars, a gym, a high school, and a community center that holds  a library, a pool, and a hockey rink. The Drive feels loose and uncrowded, yet as abundant as a market street in  Manhattan. The streetcars are long gone, but buses run both ways along the Drive every six minutes. You can be  downtown in fifteen minutes. Why, when so many streetcar neighborhoods across the continent have fallen ill,  had this one stayed so healthy? As it turned out, it was nurtured by many of the same forces that fueled  Vancouver’s vertical downtown: absence of freeways, geographic constraints, and, especially, local policies that  encouraged more human density. 

But those of us who live in detached homes owe a debt of gratitude to all those people who either cannot afford  a house or simply prefer apartments or sharing space. They help keep the cash registers flowing on Commercial  Drive. They are the reason that the First Ravioli Store survives. Their patronage helps heat the public swimming  

pool and keeps buses coming so frequently that there is no point in checking the schedule. They offer eyes to  keep the streets safe. They make life easier for everyone.* Accepting new people at new proximities certainly  saved me from a disaster straight out of Luis Rayo’s evolutionary happiness algorithm: 

I told Wolf the place felt a little bit like a commune. “But it’s not!” he corrected me. “None of this land is  communal. All the lots are still privately owned. We live in our own homes and have our own yards. It’s just 

that we choose to share those yards and some of our resources.” The setup is remarkably simple. Members of N  Street Cohousing pay $25 per month to use the common house, which Wolf and Cloud still own. Some take  turns cooking meals for dozens of neighbors in the big kitchen. Some prefer to cook and eat alone at home. 

Amid all this voluntary intimacy, remarkable things happen. After I shared dinner with Wolf and a dozen  friends, a neighbor arrived with a small child he introduced as Wolf and Cloud’s daughter. The child was about  five years old, and full of spark. After Wolf put her to bed, he explained that the kid didn’t actually begin life as  his daughter: she had been adopted as a nine-month-old by another community member, a single woman who  later died of cancer. The change in the child’s family life was organic. As her mother’s health declined, the child  spent time with key neighbors, sleeping over at Kevin and Linda’s house more and more often. The bonds of  intimacy and care were so tight that when her mother finally died, the child had already transitioned into a new  loving household (and she was formally adopted). The village had become her extended family and wrapped  itself around her like a cocoon. 

began documenting that life: people wandering along the edges of Venice’s canals, the bustle of Perugia’s crooked alleyways, Siena’s Piazza del Campo and its many happy loiterers. Compared with the sterile sidewalks of home, where nobody paused to so much as have a coffee, public space in Italy’s medieval cities seethed with life.” 

“With its amphitheater-like shape, its café-lined edges, and its loiter-friendly bollards, Siena’s Piazza del Campo  is perfectly configured to attract and hold people.” 

“They were much more interested in watching people doing things than watching flowers or fashion,” he noted.  His conclusion seems obvious, and yet it was revolutionary at the time: “What is most attractive, what attracts people to stop and linger and look, will invariably be other people. Activity in human life is the greatest  attraction in cities.” 

“We found that if you make more road space, you get more cars. If you make more bike lanes, you get more bikes. If you make more space for people, you get more people and of course then you get public life.” 

now you can see Copenhageners out on their plazas in the dead of winter, wrapped in woolen blankets, sipping little cups of espresso. Gehl collects pictures of them, proof that by redesigning city space, you can actually  transform the culture.”

“When you think about it, none of this crowd affinity should be a surprise. Almost all of us will choose a seat in a  restaurant with a view of others. People will show up for the most mundane small-town parades. We like to look at each other. We enjoy hovering in the zone somewhere between strangers and intimates.” 

“The Internet has been a mixed blessing. If you use your computer, iPad, or mobile device much like TV, it has the same negative effect on you as TV. If you use your devices to interact with people, they can help support  your close relationships—one study found that after the introduction of an online discussion list in several  Boston communities, neighbors actually started sitting out on their porches and inviting each other to dinner  more.” 

“We inserted some incivility into that crowd. At Zak’s urging, I leaned my shoulder toward passing bodies, first  brushing passersby, then making full contact. It was just the kind of behavior that would get you slugged on  other streets, but time and again I got a smile, a steadying hand, or an apology. I tried dropping my wallet  several times and got it back every time with an enthusiasm that bordered on the ceremonial. Then we upped the  ante. We accosted random strangers and asked them for hugs. This was a bizarre request from two grown men,  but the Main Streeters, men and women, responded with open arms and little hesitation. The place displayed a  pro-social demeanor that was almost as cartoonish as the setting.” 

“But the plaza’s most memorable feature is the house-size glass cube that sits at its heart. Reminiscent of I. M.  Pei’s Pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, the cube is actually an entrance to a subterranean Apple Store. The  space vibrates with life at various speeds and intimacies. On a late September afternoon I observed a young girl  poking at her reflection in the pool, a suited businessman crumpled in a power snooze, a dozen couples lunching  together, and dozens more simply eyeing the rest of us. It was people that made the space most interesting and  worthwhile, but it took design to draw us together and slow us down just enough to transform that landscape of  marble, concrete, water, and glass into a social environment.” 

“It may seem outrageous to parking-obsessed North Americans, but Vauban’s parking burden has helped make it one of the most popular suburbs of Freiburg. Leonard sure liked it. When we arrived at his school, the five-year old turned to me and bellowed something in German. He beamed as his mother, Petra Marqua, translated,  “Tomorrow I get to ride to school all by myself.” Those slow streets, filled with so many familiar faces, made  the ride so safe that Petra acquiesced.”

“In New York at that time, everyone hated everyone: the blacks and whites and Jews, the locals and the  immigrants, they all hated each other,” Peñalosa said of the years in the mid-nineteenth century during which  Central Park was born. “Olmsted believed that a good public space would help all these people break down the  barriers by sharing space and getting to know each other.”* He envisioned the same thing for Bogotá.”


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Purpose: I create an empowering context for curious and hungry people looking for fulfillment, experiences, and creativity. We do this by developing their growth mindset, introducing self-love, and powerful group experiences. It results in people with strong boundaries, resilient mental health, and practical life skills

People leave with the ability to land their dream job, have autonomy and flexibility with their lifestyle, travel the world, and create from their heart and soul.


Davidson was once broke, insecure, low-confidence, and frustrated by doing all the wrong activities. Addicted to drugs, validation, and wallowing in self-pity. No relationship to family, and at the mercy of other people’s suggestions and opinions.

It was hell.

After spending $100k hiring different coaches, traveling the world doing workshops around the world, reading>1000 books, and through curiosity, have created the most effective system to remove people from that situation. My life’s work is to bring joy and abundance to people who as on a similar path as I was and bring back the joy and abundance of their life.

Through shared experiences and storytelling, I inspire and model behaviors that lead to a richer, more fulfilled life full of joy, experiences, passion, and ecstasy from the richness of relationships and being able to experience the depths of the human experience.

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