Happy City: Charles Montgomery, CEO and Founder & Houssam Elokda, Operations Manager and Planner

Happy City, the Urban Planning, design and architecture consultancy has worked with Cities and organisations to improve the wellbeing of urban citizens and cities through design since 2013. Can you explain a bit about how the organisation does this; and what you have learnt so far?

Houssam Elokda

Urban planning and design have a direct — but commonly overlooked — influence on human wellbeing, both physical and psychological. Cities are starting to recognize that societal wellbeing is both a responsibility and a reasonable goal. Our goal has been to help them make their cities happier, healthier and more inclusive.

We try to help cities see the full picture of urban wellbeing. Then, we work with them to create neighbourhood plans, public spaces, street designs and many other urban projects that help make people happier and healthier.

We also try to bridge the gap between research and practice. Most of the great research out there is buried under academic jargon in dusty university bookshelves. A big part of our work is communicating this knowledge in a digestible format, using graphics, accessible text and many other ways.

We also ensure our teams contain researchers, experienced practitioners and communications experts. We are probably one of the only urban planning firms with journalists on their team!

One key thing we learned is that a good design team has to be diverse and interdisciplinary. Our initial team came from very non-traditional backgrounds for a planning firm. But quickly we realized that our interdisciplinary nature (and our diverse backgrounds) actually made our work better. For example, having an academic on a design team for a real-life project ensures our practice is guided by research. But also, flipping it the other way around, having a planning project manager advise a research project ensures that the research is actually useful in the real world. Also, having a team that is diverse in its cultural, racial, sexual and even socio-economic identity ensures that there is someone advocating for different groups on the design table.

What does a Happy City look like to you? And besides the benefits for individual urban citizens’ health, why should it be an important goal for decision makers and planners to create happier cities?

Charles Montgomery:

Everyone wants to know what the happy city looks like! That reflects the aesthetic obsessions of our age, I suppose. But we are more interested in how the city performs: how it influences our behaviour and feelings. So instead of describing a happy building or park for you, I want to start by defining what we mean by happiness.

One thing we know is that our traditional reliance on GDP as a measure for societal success has been a huge fail. Consider China, where massive GDP growth was negatively correlated with people’s reported happiness. So what are our measures of success? We describe our 9-part wellbeing framework on our blog, but here’s the short version:

  • We are interested in subjective wellbeing: or how happy people say they are with their lives.
  • We are interested in psychological wellbeing: to what extent are people thriving and living up to their potential.
  • We are interested in physical health.
  • And we are interested in social inclusion: the degree to which the benefits of city life are shared by all.
  • Of course, it’s irresponsible to talk about boosting happiness in your city without considering the effect of urban life on the ecosystems that support us.

The good news is that many of the design interventions we’d make to boost happiness also help us take on the big challenges of our age, like climate change. So what does the happy city look like? It looks walkable, like the neighbourhoods we are helping to plan in the UAE. It blends lots of uses, like parts of Brooklyn and Tokyo. It is infused with nature, like the new design for Paddington Central in London. It offers the freedom to move without a car, like Copenhagen. It makes room for everyone with affordable housing, like Vienna. And it offers a thousand ways to connect with other people, like parts of central Mexico City.

From your experience what would you say are the biggest challenges cities face when looking to improve how happy their city is?

Houssam Elokda:

The biggest challenge facing our cities today is our climate crisis. Cities are a major contributor to this crisis. A sizable portion of our emissions come from our buildings and transportation systems. That means we need to embrace denser, more energy efficient living, but we also need to encourage more people to walk, cycle and take transit as opposed to driving cars.

The good news is that all the research indicates that moving away from car-dependent cities will not just save our planet, but it will also enrich our lives. When we move slowly, we are more likely to connect with neighbours, we allow for casual interactions with people. When we prioritize transit, we make more of the city accessible to everyone, our air becomes cleaner, and city governments get richer now that they save money on expensive car infrastructure.

Charles Montgomery:

The climate crisis is urgent, but the crisis most people feel most acutely in cities today is affordability. We need to solve these both at the same time. Fortunately the solutions are complementary. When we build more affordable multifamily housing near jobs, opportunities and transit, it cuts carbon emissions from transportation, and it makes people’s lives easier. The happiness effect of trading a long commute for a short walk to work each day is similar to falling in love! But we can’t rely on the market alone to build affordable housing. Governments have got to step up.

Measuring people’s wellbeing and happiness can be a complicated thing to do. What do you think is the best way to accurately measure how happy a city is as a whole?

Houssam Elokda:

To know how happy people are, we need to simply ask them. Recurring surveys over time will tell us how people feel over time and we start to identify patterns and connections to what influences people’s subjective wellbeing. Imagine trying to guess your partner’s satisfaction with your relationship by looking only at objective measures like how much money they spend or how many times they go see a doctor. Humans connect when they empathize with each other, and city leaders desperately need more empathy with their constituents. That means we need city leaders to listen more, engage more, be more transparent and more vulnerable. We need to humanize politics and government.

As you’re both experts in how to make cities happier places, what one thing would each of you say is essential to improve the happiness of cities?

Houssam Elokda:

If I had to pick one thing, it would be public transit. Maybe I am biased because I am definitely a transit nerd. But aside from that, there is a lot of research that links public transit to almost every aspect of the happy city we are talking about. Without transit, there will be no other option for medium to long commutes in the city other than the car. The majority of people will drive, making commuting a living hell for everyone!

Public transit is the most effective way of getting cars off the road and making commuting easier. Given how efficient it is at moving people, it allows cities to free up urban space for more sidewalks and bike lanes that get even more people out of cars. That’s what cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have done. There, the vast majority of commuters take transit, ride a bike or walk to their destinations. It’s no coincidence that these cities also tend to top the happiness ratings every year. There’s further evidence that links transit to economic development, increase in job opportunities and, most importantly, reduction in GHG emissions.

Charles Montgomery: Cities need what we have come to call Happy Homes. Residents in many cities these days have to choose between auto-dependent sprawl and alienating tower apartments. Our research shows that both these forms are hard on people’s wellbeing. Folks in auto-dependent communities spend so much time just getting around that their relationships fray. Meanwhile, people who live in towers report feeling lonely and crowded at the very same time.

But the evidence points to a happy design solution somewhere between the two extremes: medium-dense housing in human-scaled, connected neighbourhoods. What’s the ideal housing cluster for nurturing social trust and neighbourliness? About 12 households for every main entrance or social space. We’re now working with architects and developers to create new happy home models to slot into existing core neighbourhoods.

Charles, your journey researching and writing Happy City the book took you all around the world. What for you was the most interesting part of this process, and who was the most inspiring person or place you visited?

Charles Montgomery:

I loved the process of using insights from neuroscience, psychology and public health to make sense of the way cities do or do not work for people. I interviewed more than a hundred thinkers, researchers, planners, activists, architects and politicians. I walked, biked and rode transit through dozens of cities. And gradually I began to see these places, all places, through the various lenses of these disciplines. It felt a bit like emerging from the Matrix: I began to see the effects of these built landscapes on the feelings and behaviour of people. The invisible was suddenly visible, all around me.

Who inspired me most? There were many. But one of my heroes is Eva Kail. She’s a humble planner from Vienna, who realized that her city was not working for women, because it was planned by men. She recruited troops of elderly women to walk through the streets with her, revealing the ways the city enabled them or trapped them. She and her team then redesigned public parks, so that girls felt safe using them. She changed peoples’ lives by including them in the design process. It’s a reminder to middle-aged white guys like me to shut up and listen.

Houssam, you are working on a project to map both formal and informal modes of transport in Cairo to improve mobility there. How important is transport, and how people choose to or are forced to move in cities, in relation to their happiness?

Mobility is probably the most important ingredient of happy cities. People need to be able to get to work, see friends and access essential services. They need to be able to get around their city affordably, quickly, without destroying the environment, their mental health and definitely without risking their lives. We also seriously need to consider equity in how we design our streets. You cannot have a happy city if those who are too poor, too old, too young or those with disabilities cannot get around with dignity. The decisions cities make in how they allocate investments and infrastructure for their mobility systems likely reflect how they approach all other decisions that affect urban life.

In Egypt, for example, nearly 90% of households don’t even own a car. Yet the vast majority of road space is reserved for people who drive. People who cannot afford a car are forced to use undignified, overcrowded transportation systems –– and they still get stuck in traffic! This inequality is reflected in almost every single aspect of the country’s economic, social and political system.

Images: happycity.com 

Richard Lambert

About Richard Lambert

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Richard Lambert, Coordinator of Liveable Ciiies Prorgam. He has been working for 10 years creating sustainable urban communities in London, UK and Internationally. Specialising in the development of urban green infrastructure and pedestrian walking related improvement projects, policies and strategies.