Montgomery: “Social Ties Are the Most Important Contributor to Happiness”


Charles Montgomery, a dynamic young Canadian author and speaker, who will soon publish Happy City, a work he has spent a “half decade researching,” gave one of the keynotes at the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting. He argued that “places, stories, rituals control our behavior,” but indeed place may matter the most for our collective happiness. Landscape architects must focus in on the urban forms and qualities that make people happiest.

Montgomery went to the World Urban Forum run by UN-Habitat when it came through Vancouver. The news was dire: half of the world’s population will soon live in cities. The world is facing combined challenges with peak oil, climate change, and reduced availability of water. However, it doesn’t have to be so bad. We can focus on happiness instead of the relentless pursuit of GDP growth. As Enrique Penalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Columbia, argued “why not make happiness a goal,” considering most countries in the world will never catch up to the U.S. in terms of economic performance.

What do we mean by happiness? The concept has obsessed philosophers and urban planners for thousands of years. “Aristotle wondered if it’s in heaven or earth?” Leading very public debates in ancient Greece, Aristotle ended up defining happiness as “to be guided by a positive spirit.” Greeks saw happiness as a balancing act between prosperity (a larger family, more wealth and power) with virtue (being engaged with the community, being good).

In the 18th century, pleasure gardens arose in Europe because of greater wealth. “There was enough money, prosperity so the idea was that everyone could have a chance of happiness on earth.” It quickly became a demand on policymakers: provide more happiness.

Economists soon defined happiness as money. It became about “maximizing purchasing power and minimizing pain.” American sprawl became the model for happiness but proved to be the most “expensive, polluting,” and “ambitious” project undertaken. Then, a new group of scientists – psychologists – found that you can ask people how happy they are and get a pretty good gauge. MRIs can be used to determine when someone’s happy. Also, blood tests can be taken to see levels of hormones in the bloodstream.

These researchers found that happiness doesn’t equal money. It’s more linked with status, social ties, security, health (and feeling healthy), along with a sense of meaningfullness or mastery. “Social ties though are the most important contributor to happiness.” In America, suburbs expanded, incomes rose, home size grew, but happiness remained flat, at 1950 levels.

Robert Sapolsky, an innovative neuroscientist (see image above), started doing research on baboon social lives. Those pushed around by alpha males had much “higher stress levels.” Stress can be OK when dealing with lions but long-term can be “toxic.” Baboons with “higher stress levels got sick more often and died younger.” However, low-status baboons had great tools. “They had friendships with other low-status baboons.” Also, alpha males, once weakened and older, were often pushed out of the community, meaning they “died alone, scared.” In the human world, it’s the same: strong social relationships with higher levels of trust mean increased life satisfaction. “The more you trust your neighbors, the happier you are.”

Montgomery reviewed the case of the Chicago heat waves, which killed more than 700 people. Researchers found that those who died weren’t in hotter areas but were those with the weakest social ties, the fewest friends. Environment, however, played a big role in this. The “high modernists” who created social housing projects helped create dangerous, socially-isolating environments for people. They still are: the palm project in U.A.E. is “sprawl on the water.”

Research shows that “super-commuters” who face 2-4 hours of commuting daily are really at risk. In neighborhoods with high levels of these super-commuters, there’s “zero trust.” These people “don’t have dinner with their children.” These people also vote less and fail to “maximize utility.” Sprawl then creates the conditions so people have fewer friends and close social ties. Montgomery sees the American sprawl model as broken, part of the reason behind the collapse of government finances, and “at the end, perhaps leading to a new beginning.” But, ultimately, “happiness is a choice, a personal choice. We are affected by the places we live in.”

Penalosa had a simple idea: create streets made for people, not cars. Instead of building freeways, he invested in libraries, schools, water systems and complete streets, with bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. With TransMilenio (see earlier post), “poor people can get around as fast as rich people with cars.” Bogota won lots of environmental awards for this. Mongtomery didn’t note that the BRT system was copied from Curitiba, Brazil. (See an interview with Jaime Lerner, the inventor of comprehensive BRT systems).

Living close together, while beneficial to social tie creation, can be stressful. “People being near each all the time can be stressful.” But humans have made ways to deal. Handshakes, polite gestures like opening doors for someone, even falling in love, they all lead to boosts in endorphin systems.

“We are also very responsive to our environments and react to environmental systems.” Disneyland has figured this out. Going out with a neuroscientist, Montgomery tested trust levels in one of Disney’s theme parks. Dropping his wallet, it was always returned. Bumping into people aggressively, the response was more muted or polite. Hugs were reciprocated. He said Disney’s urban designers and landscape architects knew exactly what kind of experience to design to maximize trust. In one “great” book, The Neighborhood Project, David Sloan Wilson found that just by looking at different houses on a block people had higher or lower trust levels. “Unconsciously we make decisions about much we can trust landscapes, people.”

Further testing out these ideas, Montgomery started an urban lab project in the Lower East Side of Manhattan with funding from the Guggenheim. Wearing “skin conductive cuffs,” a set of people tested out the “warmth or brutality of spaces.” There were high arousal levels when crossing big streets like Houston. In contrast, “in senior’s gardens, people felt happiest.” Streets with many openings instead of stark facades also raised happiness levels. These are ideas urban designer Jan Gehl has promoted (see an interview). Of course, people feel the happiest when surrounded by nature. Biophilia is true: there are great benefits to “being in nature, you feel good, comfortable.”

Communities can turn things around for themselves and veer away from “empty cul-de-sacs.” Green matters. Just adding in trees or vegetation can “lead to a dramatic difference in affect.” Gardens, green streets, all designed by landscape architects, “matter a great deal.” Penelosa turned streets into parks on Sundays, providing a space for communities to interact without cars. Many other cities have copied his approach since, including, most recently, New York City, with its new pedestrian malls.

The Build a Better Block experiment in Houston, which just won an ASLA professional award, provides another example of how to reimagine transportation infrastructure. In Portland, residents also got together to redo their own intersection, adding a gazebo and paintings throughout the streetscape, creating this community’s own “piazza.” An example of an “intersection repair intervention,” the project showed the importance of doing projects together. In the community, “everything changed. There were new connections. These are people who know their neighbors.” As one younger resident said, “why would we be scared, we have each other.”

Montgomery’s lasting point for landscape architects: while designing with artistry is important, projects can only suceed to the extent to which they bring communities together and involved in the process.

Image credit: Robert Sapolsky and a baboon / Copyright Robert Sapolsky 2006.

One thought on “Montgomery: “Social Ties Are the Most Important Contributor to Happiness”

  1. Anonymous 11/03/2011 / 7:43 am

    It would be interesting to have a website or a page on a site such as this one where communities could write their “stories of happiness” – just so we begin to have a measure for happiness getting translated into urban spaces that work for people!

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