5 things you learn about happiness & urban design from Happy City

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a finalist for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Here are some interesting facts from the book!


1. More money does not mean more happiness.

For years, Gross Domestic Product has been a key factor when assessing a population's happiness and subjective well-being. But there's a point of diminishing returns. Several studies have indicated that the boom years of the late 20th century did not lead to a significant rise in happiness. By 2005, years before the global financial recession shook the world, clinical depression in the U.S. was actually "three to ten times as common as it was two generations ago."

2. Long daily commuting is majorly hurting our happiness.

Researchers say there is a clear connection between long daily commutes and a decline in social engagement with family and friends. One Swedish study shows that those with a commute of 45 minutes or more were 40 per cent more likely to divorce than those living in urban centres. Commuters also tend to be less politically engaged as well: "Citizens of sprawl are actually less likely to know the names of their elected representatives than people who live in more connected places."

3. What makes a big city attractive to live in will eventually make it harder to live in.

Globally speaking, more people are moving to and living in urban areas. According to the UN, the world's urban population went from 34 per cent in 1960 to an astonishing 54 per cent of the world's total population in 2014. But, as Montgomery points out, this creates a whole new set of challenges that many city planners are still trying to effectively figure out: "The more we flock to high-status cities for the good life - money, opportunity, novelty - the more crowded, expensive, polluted and congested those places become." The result? Surveys show that rich, high-status states in the United States are among the least happy in the country.

4. More trees = more happiness.

Environmental psychologists have established clear links between engagement with nature, well-being, and behaviour. People who live next to green spaces are more likely to actually use the space socially, know more about their neighbours, have a stronger sense of belonging, and are even less prone to violence. "A study of Los Angeles revealed that people who live in areas with more parks are more helpful and trusting than people who don't, regardless of their income or race."

5. Fewer cars = more happiness.

In Happy Cities, former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa is credited with leading numerous infrastructure developments in the late-1990s that helped turn the city around. The development included hundreds of miles of bike paths, a vast new system of parks and public plazas, and the creation of the city's first rapid transit system, using buses instead of trains. Peñalosa also raised gas taxes and even barred "drivers from commuting by car more than three times a week." In 2000, the city proclaimed a car-free day, with all private cars banned from city streets for a day. The day, which saw people walking, biking, and skating to work and school, was so popular that they voted in a referendum to have it annually.