Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
How can we be happier in cities? Charles Montgomery looks for answers at the intersection of urban design and the new science of happiness. In psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, and in cityscapes from Disneyland to Dubai, he explores the link between the ways we design our cities and the ways we think, feel, and act. His work demonstrates how each of us can change our own lives by changing our relationship with the cities we inhabit.
Charles Montgomery is an award-winning author, urbanist, and leader of a consultancy building more happiness into cities. He is the author of the book Happy City, about which The New York Times wrote: “Happy City is not only readable but stimulating. It raises issues most of us have avoided for too long. Do we live in neighborhoods that make us happy? That is not a silly question. Montgomery encourages us to ask it without embarrassment, and to think intelligently about the answer.”
“Charles Montgomery offers a convincing, cogent argument for using happiness as an urban design lens. During his time in Halifax, Charles provided constructive ideas and thoughtful comments to help our city achieve its potential as a place where people can experience the best of what urban life has to offer.”— Mike Savage, Mayor of Halifax
He has advised and lectured planners, students, and decision-makers across the USA, Canada, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. Montgomery also creates experiments that challenge us to see our cities—and ourselves—in entirely new ways. His Home for the Games initiative led hundreds of people to follow his example and open their homes to strangers during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Working with the BMW Guggenheim Lab and the citizens of New York City, he transformed an empty lot into a machine to maximize feelings of altruism. Whether it is empowering people to re-imagine a city street using hundreds of huge building blocks, or challenging them to hug total strangers, each experiment is driven by insights in the science of human wellbeing. Montgomery’s work nudges us out of our comfort zone to find a hopeful new vision for cities of joy.
Montgomery and his team have turned the lessons from Happy City into a tool for helping people bring more happiness into their cities. They are using it to transform places and people’s lives in Mexico City, Auckland, London, and elsewhere. Montgomery launched the world’s first Happy Neighbourhood Audit in Mexico City, and his team also began work with the World Health Organization’s Europe Healthy Cities Unit. Montgomery has also been working with TIME Magazine on an interactive survey exploring happiness in American cities. Beta version here, with interactive version in development. The Canadian Institute of Planners recently awarded Happy City with the 2020 Healthy Communities Planning Award for Planning Excellence. This award recognizes the firm’s project, the “Pavement-to-Plaza Wellbeing Assessment,” a public study designed in partnership with the City of Vancouver.
Montgomery’s writings on urban planning, psychology, culture, and history have appeared in magazines and journals on three continents. Among his awards is a Citation of Merit from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society for outstanding contribution towards public understanding of climate change science. His first book, The Last Heathen, won the 2005 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction and vigorous praise from reviewers in The New York Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere.
“Charles (Montgomery) provides an insightful, informative, and very important message on how individuals relate to, and are psychologically impacted by, the built urban environment. Charles is extremely engaging, entertaining and a really personable guy!”The Planning Institute of BC
“Charles (Montgomery) was a huge success. He was amazing as a speaker: on message, but tailored to 3 different audiences over 2 days. He energized the audience, and had 125 high school students eating out of his hand. People were happy and inspired by his presentations.”Cowichan Valley Regional District
“Charles was great. The entire team thought his presentation was well done. There was a great atmosphere that day; he was insightful, and his perspective was well received. He was informative, fun, personable, energetic and very approachable ... I would recommend him to others.”Anthem Properties
“Head, heart, and hands: Charles Montgomery covered it all! His energetic, humorous and thought-provoking presentation on people transforming their communities really inspired our United Way campaign volunteers. His heartfelt enthusiasm for people giving of their time to build strong social connections really struck a chord with these everyday heroes galvanizing them to go out and help build a better community for everyone. Thank you, Charles.”United Way
“The response to the symposium has been fantastic! The audience was truly inspired by your presentation and you provided a real call to action for the local community. Thank you so much for a wonderful lecture. Since Saturday there have been many emails flying about, resulting from the stimulating ideas you proposed.”Palm Springs Art Museum
“Charles Montgomery gave a terrific talk, getting back to the absolute fundamentals of true urbanism—people! Through a heady mix of anecdote, data, and humor, he brought to life our essential task in making cities healthy and livable—enhancing social life, and thus making people happy. Charles was a refreshing voice for architects, planners, and city officials.”International Making Cities Livable Conferences
“The conference in Vancouver was great and Charles’s keynote was fantastic as well. The audience, who was corporate real estate executives, seemed to really enjoy the subject, which is something they are starting to consider more in their work.”Quinn & Partners Inc.
“Hi, Charles- Thank YOU! We so appreciate your participation last week and we continue to hear raves about your presentation and interactions with attendees. I am really thrilled that you were able to join us for so much of the program. We were just talking this morning about what a cool guy you are. You were great in terms of substance, message and style. Your presentation was exactly what I was looking for and the proof is in the pudding. You presentation was referenced in some way during all of the sessions on Friday including the closing general session.”Urban Land Institute
“You are challenging us to think more intentionally about how space promotes or inhibits community and well-being ... As a pastor in a community deeply involved in creating generous community and fostering neighborly dialogue, I found your presentation exactly what we needed to hear and what we need to engage. Thanks so much ... Information is one thing; an engaging presenter is something else altogether. You combine both—spot on information with an engaging and engaged presentation. We appreciate not only what you are doing, but who you are.”The Well/Queen Anne Church
“We have received such wonderful feedback from guests at our event last week. Charles did an excellent job, and there was lots of engagement from the audience as demonstrated by the questions and answer period (lots of questions!). One of our goals of the event was to attract new participants—people who hadn’t been to a NextGen event before—and we certainly accomplished that.”City of Edmonton
“Dear Charles: Thanks for your wonderful presentation at the Public Salon last night! We received so many positive comments. It was quite impressive to see how many people left the theater with your book under their arms. Lynn certainly make the right decision to have you as the final speaker. It was a really strong finish. We really appreciate what you did to make the Public Salon such a great evening.”Global Civic Policy Society
For years, self-help experts have told us that we need to do inner work in order to improve our lives. But what if our cities themselves had the power to make or break our happiness? Drawing on brain science, psychology, and rich personal stories, Charles Montgomery explains how cities influence how we feel, behave, and treat other people in ways most of us never realize. Everything from the length of your commute to the depth of your front yard can have an unseen effect on your mind, emotions, and social life. But Montgomery uses fascinating and often funny social experiments to demonstrate that we are not helpless. We can change our lives by changing our relationship with our cities—and each other. By understanding the effect that design has on our emotions and decisions, we can all share this empowering new vision of city life.
What is the future of your city—of all cities around the world? How can the design and planning of a city affect how happy its inhabitants are? Urban experimentalist Charles Montgomery presents a message that is as surprising as it is hopeful. Doomsayers have warned that action to tackle the urgent challenges of climate change and energy scarcity will lead us into decades of hardship. But, in this talk, he looks to cities around the world that are doing it right, and he points to powerful evidence that suggests the opposite: that the green city, the low-carbon city, and the happy city are the same place. Drawing on his own experiments within cities, and using his deep understanding of history, neuroscience, psychology, and cultural studies, Montgomery presents a picture of flourishing cities, and of everyone—from governments to corporations to citizens—working together to make it happen.
Policymakers around the world are embracing human wellbeing as a legitimate and necessary goal. Jurisdictions from Bhutan to France to the United Nations have adopted happiness indices to help guide development and economic policy. Cities need to catch up.
As Charles Montgomery demonstrates in Happy City, urban systems influence the way we feel, behave, and interact with each other in ways that politicians, planners, and city builders often fail to realize. In a world of conflicting goals and complex systems, it can be easy to overlook the urban design/wellbeing connection. The good news is that happy city principles can help cities meet public health objectives as well as economic and sustainability goals at the same time.
How can you bring happiness into your own urban work? In this 90-minute workshop, participants will be introduced to a new framework for incorporating wellbeing principles into urban design and systems planning. Together we will adapt this tool to local or contextual conditions and aspirations. Using the happiness lens, participants will work in groups to examine one or more policy issues facing their community, and identify opportunities for action. Along the way, we’ll identify the cognitive errors that block good decisions on risk and reward.