Why so sad, Vancouver? The search for happiness and fulfillment is at an all time high, but too many of us are looking for happiness in the wrong places. Forget your downward dog, put down the vegan ice cream, and meditate on this: your city may be what’s causing your despair. This week, award-winning author and urbanist, Charles Montgomery, joins Adam and Matt to unpack how we can all become happier through urban and building design. Whether you are an investor, end user, or just someone looking to be tickled pink, this episode is for you. Just like John Lennon said, “happiness is a warm gun… and a well-planned city!” Well, we may be paraphrasing a bit.
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About Charles Montgomery:
I’m a longtime Vancouver resident. I was born in North Van, grew up on the island and then moved back to Vancouver in my 20s. But when I came back, I was frustrated by the city. I found it so hard and alienating, which planted the seeds for my book.
Did your experience in Vancouver in your 20s lead you down the path of how to make people happy in urban environments?
Yes, the seed was planted in Vancouver but the book was really born in Mexico City. I realized there was more magic and fascination to be had in our cities. So I pursued my curiosity about cities. I met the mayor of Bogota, Colombia who had claimed to redesign his city to maximize happiness. I was so intrigued by this; is it possible? Can we use design to make people happier in cities? Can science lead the way?
How do you identify? Are you an author first or urban planner or something else?
I’m actually fighting with my team about this right now! Our consultancy helps cities with design, architecture and planning, but fundamentally I am a storyteller. I use research and experience to investigate questions that interest me. And I use stories to help explain to myself and others how it all works.
On Latin American cities and their inclusion in the book:
The book started for me in Mexico City because it’s so complex and wondrous. We fail to recognize that cities work because they are complex. We destroy cities by oversimplifying them.
Mexico City has immense problems with poverty, long commutes, etc. But at the same time, you can find everything you need within a three minute walk! The informal economy has become a source for employment and a way to make life easier for people who live in neighbourhoods.
Why are so many cities unhappy?
Every place is unique so I can’t speak generally. But in North America over a century ago, they created a streetcar line and shops so they could sell property. They created density so people could walk to the high street and take the streetcar. And we benefit from that system today.
But what went wrong? Technology changed and people began using private cars to travel longer distances. Racism and classism hurt the planning regime. Zoning codes stuck neighbourhoods so they can’t change. For example, on the west side of Vancouver we have a neighbourhood that hasn’t changed in decades because we don’t allow things like multi-family housing. That over simplification hurts the city.
What are the bad forces that oversimplify or destroy cities?
Cars are not evil in themselves. We love to drive but we hate to drive in traffic. But the decision to plan a city around cars and not transit means people need to be willing to drive long distances.
When we compare self-reported scales of well being, social trust and health of people who live on auto-dependent edges of big American cities versus people who live in connected, walkable mixed-use areas, we see big differences. On the urban edges people are less likely to know or trust neighbours, to vote, to volunteer, etc. They don’t have the time. But if we give them the opportunity to live in places that are walkable, that changes.
Lawrence Frank at UBC even found a correlation between healthcare costs associated with diabetes and heart disease and the type of neighbourhood people live in.
A lot of people still have the goal of a single family house with a yard. What needs to change to move towards more dense and connected living? What market forces need to change?
Surveys say people want to live in places that are walkable and connected yet they still are moving to the auto-dependent urban edges. Why? Because cities aren’t evolving and changing. People are being kept out of their favourite areas of the city. In Vancouver, you need to be wealthy to own or even rent in the city. So we need to ask ourselves how we can make these walkable, connected, healthy places more available to all people in all income ranges? Not just in the city core but in the suburbs too.
We hear a lot about the death of the single family home and that denser urban living is better for health, the planet and our happiness. Why now?
A few reasons: Millennials have a preference for places that are walkable and connected. People are realizing the auto-dependent single-family home way of life is actually very expensive. With the real concerns of climate change, we know we can lower emissions by living where you share walls and changing your mode of transportation.
But it’s also thanks to beautiful places in the city! In Vancouver we have Olympic Village as an example, and really nice parks and facilities. These are great places to be so it’s no wonder people want to be there. The question is how do we give more people these opportunities without making the places worse?
On residential towers:
A lot of the backlash against density is backlash against the alienating tower form. The most common demographic in Canada is people living alone in an apartment. Our Happy City team of researchers, architects and urban planners wanted to know how we can ensure multi-family housing nurtures social relationships and social trust. Because there is no more powerful contributor to happiness than our relationships.
We spent a year developing our Happy Housing Toolkit. We discovered that you can’t just push people together. Occupants of residential towers are the most likely to feel both lonely and crowded at the very same time. So we learned that the urban sprawl on the edge of city doesn’t work and neither does the residential tower.
So what’s the solution? The missing middle! In the design world, the missing middle is a multi family that is in between a single family home and a residential tower. It’s duplexes, stacked townhouses, and low rises up to four or five stories. Our research showed that social scale really matters. If we limit social clusters to 12 households that is the ideal number for social interactions
So with the “four floors and corner stores” model in Vancouver, are we doing it right?
I don’t want to oversimplify things but it is time to start experimenting with both old and new forms of housing. We are working with Tomo developers who wanted to put all the research we had done into one development to build the perfect place. Enter Tomo House at 41st and Main. Tomo House is 12 households under one roof with soft edges. It’s separate homes but a shared inner courtyard, common house, and an exterior where you can bump into your neighbours. There’s also an affordable ownership component. So this house is more social, more sustainable and more affordable.
We’re also bringing back shared laundry, not as a punishment but as an amenity. We’re making the laundry room a social place where you could linger a little bit and interact with your neighbours. I have my own experience with this with Little Mountain Cohousing.
Besides ToMo and Little Mountain Co-housing, are there others in Vancouver?
Yes, there are a few in Vancouver. For example with Vancouver Co-housing, residents say they save $1,500 on childcare because they have their village. They are more social, calmer, more connected, have more meaning and live cheaper. But it took Vancouver Cohousing so long to get rezoning laws because they are in a single family neighbourhood. We are facing barriers in Vancouver because of development habits, outdated ways of thinking and outdated rules that keep people from creating better communities.
There’s a lot of “not in my backyard” when it comes to rezoning, density and development. Are we making progress on these challenges?
Isn’t it ironic that we can offer people a free home for their car but we can’t house thousands of homeless people? I have even seen house designs that will fit into the space of a parking lot!
Globally speaking, we are making progress. But in Vancouver we have our challenges because of entrenched attitudes, politics and rules. I think it’s a good sign that the province and the city worked together on temporary modular housing. I think it’s a good sign that neighbourhoods have accepted these housing communities. In Marpole, parents were outraged but it was their children who encouraged them to accept the new housing and it has been successful. So we’ve taken baby steps but we still have a long way to go.
If we can get housing activists and property developers in the room together, they can come to some solutions. For example, dual zoning in neighbourhoods.
Globally, we have seen progress. In Minneapolis, new zoning allowed for triplexes across the city which reduces speculative forces and creates more opportunities. In Oregon we saw a very similar legislation.
It’s easy to say the housing situation in Vancouver is getting better if you’re comfortable. But if you’re on the edge, it’s dire and you need urgent action. We need everything from temporary modular housing to blanket rezoning laws.
What about public spaces in cities?
We have done a lot of research on how streets make people feel. We know that green helps people feel calm and more trusting. And we learned that active street edges with shops and services makes people kinder to strangers. The City of Vancouver has been working to take back pavement and car storage and turn it into people space.
For example, in the West End the city wanted to create a sense of place on Davie Street – give it history, culture and meaning. So city planners walked around the neighbourhood with one of Vancouver’s top drag queens to talk to people. That’s how they built Canada’s first rainbow intersection. Afterwards, we measured people’s reactions to these spots and people were happier, cared more about the space, they were more likely to pick up litter, they were more likely to return and spend money in the area, and they were more likely to trust strangers there. This is so important for a city suffering from disconnection.
Other examples to changes to public space:
We just studied the City of Vancouver’s Pavement to Plaza Program. There’s a plaza at Bute and Robson, the Jim Diva Plaza in the West End, and a plaza at 14th and Main. We found that women felt more comfortable in those spaces than on the regular sidewalk. They felt safer and were more likely to return with friends. Historically, cities are planned for men by men. But if we can include women’s perspective, we can make cities better for women. Of course, we need women on the design side too, which we see in places like Vienna. We can change our social world by seeing and designing cities differently.
Should we move back to the way people lived before cars?
Maybe it’s a move back or maybe it’s a jump forward. The future of mobility is more options – I can get to work by transit, bike, car share, e-scooter, walking, etc. But these options are reserved for people who live in more dense and connected areas. In order to benefit from these services, we need more complex neighbourhoods.
We need to look at different perspectives and involve different kinds of people in designing cities. For example in Mexico City I walked through a park and thought it looked great. But then we brought in people with disabilities and found that wasn’t the case for everyone. A blind person got hit, a person in a wheelchair couldn’t make it in, and there weren’t enough benches for a person with an injury.
Which cities should we look up to?
We can learn lessons from various cities. We can learn about mobility from Copenhagen and Amsterdam but not affordability. We can learn about affordability in Vienna where the government has invested in affordable housing so people can live and work there for generations. In Mexico City, we see the best and fastest roads are designated for the bus network. In Bogota they did the same thing and found that everyone, including those in cars, got to work faster. We can even learn from activists who are changing public spaces on their own.
What is your hope for Vancouver?
My biggest hope for Vancouver is that we can change our attitude about other people who are different than us – people who are not homeowners and people who weren’t as lucky and didn’t win the housing lottery decades ago. How can we make more space in our neighbourhood for those people too? And the options are out there. Whether it’s non-market rental, market rental, pushing city council to let people do more with their land, affordable options, rezoning or something else. How can we make space for all of us?
Learn more about Charles, his book and consultancy at https://thehappycity.com/