Q&A: Can Infrastructure and Architecture Affect Happiness?

Author Charles Montgomery weighs in on Vancouver’s unhappiness—and what we can do to build a better city.

Charles Montgomery’s quest to understand happiness began with other emotions. The Vancouver author was angry when stuck in traffic on Kingsway; he felt alone surrounded by millions of people in Hong Kong; when he moved from Lillooet to Vancouver, he felt trapped. His inquiry into the connection between place and emotion led to the book Happy City, published in 2013—and ultimately to a successful consulting career that has taken him everywhere from the U.K. to Mexico City. So what’s the secret to a happy city? Start with keeping life local.

Q: You went from being a skeptic to believing that cities have a role to play in people’s happiness. How have you changed in the four years since the book was published?

A: I was pessimistic. But I think we’re now seeing a movement of people who see the connection between land and capital and resilience and social justice. I see governments taking baby steps. Vancouver, like desirable cities around the world, is just waking up to this potential, as are places like London, New York, Mexico City, Hong Kong. They’re all searching for ways to keep the local strong. Cities flourish when they serve the people who live and work there.

Q: How is keeping “the local strong” building happier cities?

A: People who are able to remain in their communities form more supportive, trusting local relationships. Residents who enjoy robust security of tenure aren’t worried about being displaced during economic or other crises. This was something I wasn’t certain about at first, but as I pulled together evidence from environmental psychology I started to see a connection between the way things are built and the systems we create, and the evidence on human well-being. The evidence is there; we see it in health outcomes, we see it in life expectancy and the shape of our bodies, but we also see it in our brains and our nervous system.

Q: There’s a certain feeling people get, or at least I know I do, when they see their city as they’re arriving from the air. What’s the feeling you get when you fly into Vancouver?

A: On the one hand I feel a deep love, and on the other hand, increasingly, I feel affectionate concern. That this place is changing—everyone I know feels it. It’s an undercurrent of anxiety about the future. Not some kind of existential or philosophical concern, but concerns about their own lives, and the question many people I know face is, it’s my home now, but for how long? I work on a team of seven people and some of them refuse to move here because they can’t afford it, and others are worried that they’ll have to leave soon.

Q: Why do they feel like they have to leave?

A: With every passing day, they’re less able to afford to live here. Which means they feel the running sense of anxiety and know they have to work hard to stay, so that ends up meaning they have less time for family, friends, fun and creativity. All the things that make life worthwhile.

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Q: Recently there was a study that says Vancouver is the most unhappy city in Canada. What do you think is causing that?

A: In all caps I want to say: we’re not an unhappy city compared to all cities globally. Are we less happy than other major Canadian cities? Yes. But compared to American cities, we’re doing well. Despite all that, this is a concern. People’s level of anxiety, their subjective well-being, points to a problem.

Q: Is affordability the reason we are less happy than other Canadian cities?

A: It’s been identified that happier cities are the ones where people trust their neighbours. What’s driving low happiness in Vancouver? Yes, it’s affordability, because that causes us to work hard and leads to a hyper-mobility where people don’t stay long, and that results in a sense of disconnection.

Q: Is unhappiness a crisis?

A: We have two crises in this city and they’re synergistic: the crisis of affordability and the crisis of social disconnections. They share some of the same causes, but the good news is that the solutions for one can be applied to the other. We can tackle both of these challenges at exactly the same time.

Q:  Who should be in charge of making us a happy city? Politicians? Developers?

A: We’re all in charge of making the change. When I say “all,” I’m talking about politicians, residents, activists and developers as crucial partners. Some people may not believe this, but many leaders in the property development world really do give a damn about building healthier, happier places.

Q:  Do you think we’ll actually be happy in 25 years? Or will we settle for just being able to afford to live here?

A: Honestly, I think it depends on the choices we make right now. We’re either going to be a capital bank for vacationers and the world’s wealthy, or we’re going to be a city that offers opportunities, homes and jobs, and social richness for people who want to invest not just their capital but their lives here.

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