How to build a 'Happy City'

Author Charles Montgomery has travelled the globe in an attempt to nail down the ephemeral concept of happiness, and how the environments in which we live affect it. His book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design explores the close relationship between how we have shaped our cities, and how our cities have shaped us.

Montgomery, who grew up in Duncan, uses Vancouver throughout the book as an example of successful urban design, and for good reason. For decades, Vancouver has topped global polls as being one of the most liveable cities in the world. The city’s vibrant downtown core, with its mixture of residential and commercial uses all in close proximity to nature provides unique opportunities for recreation and social interaction.

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But this didn’t happen by accident.

City planners long ago recognized that future growth in Vancouver couldn’t take the form of suburban low-density sprawl, as was the case elsewhere in North America, due to the city’s unique geography, the lack of freeways, and restrictions preventing the conversion of farmland to residential uses by the Agricultural Land Reserve.

The “Vancouverism” model of urban design that resulted, therefore, encouraged mixed-use podium developments in the downtown core, with ground-floor commercial units and medium- to high-density residential units above, allowing residents to live close to work, and businesses to thrive.

“The Vancouverism model is unique and copied by other cities,” explains Montgomery. “It combines density with other values, like views of nature and visually interesting streetscapes.”

Those planning decisions have had a profoundly positive effect on our day-to-day lives, he explains in Happy City, and the result has been a largely happy populace, despite our seasonal lack of vitamin D.

A 2008 study published by the Scandinavian Journal of Economics confirms what most of us already know: The longer we commute, the unhappier we are. Certainly the proximity many Downtown Vancouverites have to their place of work contributes to their well being.

Similar studies, which Montgomery details in his book, have also demonstrated how positive social interactions with people on the street, feelings of autonomy and independence, financial security, and closeness to nature all positively impact one’s sense of well being.

A well-designed city, he argues, can deliver all of these outcomes.

So it’s no wonder Essential Travel magazine recently named Vancouver one of the top 10 “Happiest Cities in the World” to travel to, or that it is a perennial contender for world’s most liveable city.

However, as Vancouver prepares itself for the upcoming municipal election in November, the city finds itself at a crossroads. How will we maintain and increase our standard of living when faced with decades of anticipated population growth?

By 2040, Metro Vancouver expects more than 150,000 new residents in Vancouver proper, requiring close to 100,000 new residential units. As well, an additional 1.2 million residents are expected throughout the Metro region in that span.

So where to put those people?

The downtown core is reaching a critical mass for density. This means surrounding low density residential neighbourhoods are being eyed for development. Then there’s the question of affordability.

Urban planning decisions made in the next few years will shape the city for generations to come. 

So how does Vancouver ensure it continues to be one of the world’s most liveable cities?

“I think the future is a suburban future,” says Montgomery. “There simply isn’t enough room in downtowns, and you’re seeing all kinds of push back.”

That means retrofitting suburbia to create walkable mixed-use village and town centres.

For Montgomery, the Vancouverism model as it was applied to the downtown core may be a square peg in a round hole for neighbourhoods like East Vancouver, which Montgomery himself calls home.

He favours what he calls gentle densification as opposed to high rises: Allowing homes to be split into suites, laneway cottages, and legalizing basement suites. This method of infill will allow residential neighbourhoods to accommodate new residents without losing their character.

Allowing the subdivision of massive residential lots to allow for narrow townhomes, as was done close to 100 years ago in cities like San Francisco, New York City, and central Toronto, is also an option.

“More choices in housing, more walkable services, resulting in more people out on the street,” he says. 

But as housing in Vancouver is increasingly out of reach of the working class, emphasis must be placed on affordability. 

“The crisis in Vancouver is affordability,” says Montgomery. “It’s seen as a safe place to park your money. So it’s not simply a supply and demand problem.”

One possibility might be alternative forms of tenure, like house-sharing.

Montgomery himself co-owns a home. He and his partner bought a detached house with another couple in East Vancouver, an area in which he would otherwise not be able to afford to buy. By co-owning, both parties are able to accumulate wealth through their equity in the home, while living close to their places of work in the downtown core.

Providing incentives for untraditional mortgages like Montgomery’s is one option to offer flexibility and affordability in the housing market. Subsidized housing, rent restrictions, and eased restrictions on “mortgage-helper” suites are others.

Expanding cycling infrastructure is also a no brainer for Montgomery. In Happy City, he details how cities as diverse as Bogota and Copenhagen have successfully integrated bicycle infrastructure, with far less consternation experienced here in Vancouver.

According to a 2007 study in the Netherlands, where roadways are shared by all modes of transportation, 68 per cent of cyclists surveyed reported feeling “joy” while on the road. Drivers came in second with 51 per cent, while transit riders came in at 22 per cent.

Expanding cycling infrastructure benefits everyone, Montgomery contends.

More cyclists means fewer cars on the road, and fewer people crowding the SkyTrain platform or bus shelter. Cycling infrastructure is also vastly cheaper to build and takes up far less space.

But it isn’t a matter of one or the other, Montgomery says.

“Some people say there’s a war on cars, but I don’t believe it,” he explains. “I don’t think anyone wants to get rid of all cars, but people want more freedom to move as they want to.

“Unless you make room for people to walk and bike safely, and unless you privilege people who take transit, who share space on the road, then we’re all going to be stuck in traffic blaming each other. If you want to maximize choice, you have to privilege certain ways of moving, instead of just one.”

While Montgomery certainly doesn’t claim to have all the answers, the link between urban design and our own individual happiness is one he would like his fellow citizens to carefully consider.

“There’s so many ways we’ve gotten it wrong, and there’s various reasons for that,” he says. “Humans are not well-equipped to maximize happiness. We have a tendency to simplify complex problems.”

Which why the process by which the path forward is charted is so important.

In Montgomery’s backyard, the City of Vancouver is currently undergoing a review of the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan, which will identify areas for future development and ultimately shape the future the future of the neighbourhood.

Leading the process is a citizen’s assembly of randomly selected residents who have been tasked with bringing the concerns of the community to the planning table.

“There are groups out there already that are saying the citizen’s assembly doesn’t represent them, but I don’t buy that,” he says. “Ensuring the citizens assembly is well-informed, empowered, and listened to, I think it could be a great example to our civic leaders.”

As the election approaches, Montgomery says he is looking for candidates that acknowledge that urban design matters, and who can express why it matters and what they can do about it.

“We need brave new policies,” he says. “We need to ensure affordable housing, not just for the middle class, but for everyone.” 


Charles Montgomery’s recipe for a happy city

• The city should strive to maximize joy and minimize hardship.

• It should lead us towards health, rather than sickness.

• It should offer us real freedom to live, move, and build our lives as we wish.

• It should build resilience against economic or environmental shocks.

• It should be fair in the way it apportions space, services, mobility, joys, hardships, and costs.

• Most of all, it should enable us to build and strengthen the bonds between friends, families, and strangers that give life meaning, bonds that represent the city’s greatest achievement and opportunity.

• The city that acknowledges and celebrates our common fate, that opens doors to empathy and cooperation, will help us tackle the great challenges of this century.

Charles Montgomery is one of 11 speakers participating in TEDx Vancouver on Oct. 18 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, along with Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, and former Vancouver Whitecap Jay DeMerit. For details, visit

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