Happy City – Book Report :)

My lord! This poor book was so dog-eared by the time I finished reading it!

As the author writes, “The journey to the happy city must begin out here, in the landscape of infinitely repeated form, on the plains of dispersal.” That’s exactly where I sit as a write this. Looking out my bedroom window across the plains of dispersal. I found this book magically potent, building on and providing fire for my own quest to create beauty and connection in my dispersed landscape.

The History of Street Design

During my time as a volunteer for the National Street Service I was reminded again and again that streets didn’t always look like they do today. I’m young enough that I don’t remember it any other way, so having an opportunity to visualize something different is helpful! “For most of urban history, city streets were for everyone. The road was a market, a playground, a park and yes, it was a thoroughfare, but there were no traffic lights, painted lanes or zebra crossings. Anyone could use the street, and everyone did.”

I remember watching “The End of Suburbia” and hearing about the forced removal of the streetcar by the auto industry, convinced they had created a better form of mobility. I didn’t however know the back story of the term jaywalking and how that too was a part of their narrative to continue building dominance. “In the 1920s, auto clubs began…campaigning to redirect the blame for accidents from car drivers to pedestrians. Crossing the street freely got a pejorative name – jaywalking – and became a crime.”

As automobiles began stripping our streets of their once lively environmental elements, thus began the steady slog towards our current reality. “In this new age, freedom had a very particular character. It was not the freedom to move as one pleased. It was the freedom for CARS and cars alone, to move very quickly, unhindered by all the other things that used to happen on streets.” We’ll come back to that idea of freedom in a moment, but first lets focus on the idea of moving quickly.

Designed for Movement

More than any other element, the idea of moving quickly is the one that rubs me raw. I feel like my environment, and my life choices are all pushing me into this rushed lifestyle. That’s probably why the author’s Chapter 8 start struck me so powerfully. I’ve included the full intro here:

“When we talk about cities, we usually end up talking about how various places look and perhaps how it feels to be there in those places. But to stop there misses half the story, because the way we experience most parts of cities is at velocity; we glide past on the way to somewhere else. City life is as much about moving through landscapes as it is about being in them.

This is a critical point; not only does the city shape the way we move, but our movements shape the city in return. Jan Gehl rightly pointed out that designing a road for one mode of movement – say, travel in private automobiles- causes the road to fill up with people using that mode, in this case, driving cars. But the relationship goes both ways. The more we choose to drive, the more the urban system gets reconfigured to accommodate drivers, in an endless feedback loop of journeys and changing landscapes.

So we can’t fully understand the effect that the city has on happiness without considering how it feels to move through it and how that feeling guides our behavior. But the psychology of mobility is a house of mirrors where what we want, what we do, and what makes us feel good are rarely the same choice.

I especially appreciate the final quote. How often do we allow ourselves to stop and ask, is my environment really doing it’s part of help me live life the way I would want? I recognize in myself that I SO prefer to walk places, but my life rushes at such a hurried pace I’m rarely allowed that luxury. But how much of that is my fault, and under my control and how much is due to the design of my environment? I would argue there is shared responsibility. I can control elements, but my life would look much different if I lived in a different part of the city.

The Equity of Street Design

I’ve become so accustomed to the car dominance of my environment, that I’d never thought to question it. Then, two winters ago, a main bridge along the greenbelt path of Boise was damaged. The city continued caring for streets, repairing and maintaining all winter long, but not the greenbelt. It was left damaged. My dad made the point “if that were a road, it would have been fixed immediately.” A light bulb went on for me…Why was that? Why was it “acceptable” to allow this stretch of “road” for pedestrians and bicycles to remain damaged?

geometry of equity - happy city

I love this visual from the book. It reminds me of the huge power dynamic at play between cars and non-cars. If cars are already at such an advantage, with their speed and their “protection”, why then are they also worthy of all the preferential treatment in our roadways? Imagine if cars were merely allowed in a space, instead of having it designed around them.

Happy City tells a tale of just such an environment. One were the “auto drivers don’t have equal rights; they are guests, legally bound to give the right-of-way to bicycles and pedestrians.” This is the idea of the Dutch Woonerf.

“In the woonerf, walkers, cyclists and cars are all invited to mingle in the same space, as though they are sharing a living room. Nobody in a woonerf moves much faster than the speed of perceived safety, which amounts to a brisk walking pace.”

Now we come back to that idea of designing our environments to be moved through. If the woonerf is designed for brisk walking pace imagine how much more the design of the environment matters! Imagine how much longer you spend in a place when you are moving at that pace. You are far less likely to tolerate a five minutes walking next to a blank wall!

The Effects of Garages

A perfect example of how design effects environment which in turn effects those living in that environment can be found right outside my window…Garages. My street is lined with them. “As much as we all love the convenience of proximal parking, the garage effect kills life on residential streets. If all the people in your neighborhood have room for their cars inside their homes or under their apartments, you are much less likely to see them on the sidewalk.”

Jimmy and I often talk about alleys in the same way. If you look at the older neighborhoods of Boise you’ll notice a lack of garages and an abundance of alleys. The shift away from these two characteristics may seem subtle, but their effects altered the way streets function in my suburban neighborhood. In altering the geography of parking, the use of the street changed as well. It’s possible now for a neighbor to come and go without ever interacting with the outside environment.

Freedom vs Ownership

By designing our environments for the car, we have robbed ourselves of the connection to one another, and created a lifestyle of isolation and exclusion, where quickness is king. If “freedom” is to be found only by owning a car, there is a severe inequity in that model. Now anyone without a car is at a disadvantage.

Instead, imagine an environment designed in such a way that ownership felt like a burden, and sharing offered freedom, not the other way around. I remember that was one of the highlights I gleaned from “The Joy of Less” book. Finding joy in “shifting some of our pleasures and activities into the public realm” and offloading some of the burdens of ownership.

I was yet again reminded of the connection between happiness, design, and minimalism with this quote by Denis Baupin, “What is really special about the Velib (shared bike in France) is that you don’t own it. Like a park, the bicycle is for everybody to share. We don’t take shopping carts home after using them at the supermarket. We don’t cart around our own elevators or airplanes. Why should we be forced by urban design to own cars and bicycles?”

Designed for Connection

If we are to shift away from a model focused on ownership, and instead focus on a connection, we need environments that encourage connection.

“Scant few neighborhood in north america feature places that draw people together regularly for anything other than buying stuff”

Jan Gehl talks about the Law of Social Geometry, or “a design that can predict human behavior by providing regular opportunities for brief, easy contact.” An example highlighted is the design depth of the front yard. It should be deep enough to provide solitude if that is desired by also shallow enough to allow for easy conversation with a passerby.

If happiness comes from connection we need to shift away from environments focused on ownership and mobility, and begin to focus on creating more opportunities to connect with one another around shared experiences and shared environments.

That’s where I will focus. I just started reading The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg and hope to glean more examples of how environments that encourage casual, unplanned encounters.