Smile Cities

Strategies for Smart Cities that actually make us happier

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (by Charles Montgomery)

2018-07-22 Reviews Andreas


In his book “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design”, Charles Montgomery summarises results from scientific studies, case studies and stories from personal experiences from a wide range of cultures, times and countries around the world. He investigates what makes people happy and how the place where people live influences their happiness.

I have translated the content of the book into a diagram that should help to understand different aspects of happiness and factors that influence them. The goal of this review is to highlight where cities play a major role and, for my own research, to identify areas to investigate the role of Information and Communication Technologies for.

For centuries there have been debates about what happiness is. Montgomery identified three major aspects: contentment, reported happiness and life satisfaction. Reported happiness is a snapshot, influenced by the past and even by potential future events (“happiness is inherently remote”). Life satisfaction has more to do with reflecting on the past and with how someone feels about what they have achieved and experienced in their life.

Contentment is a temporary state of feeling good. There is no strong influence of contentment on life satisfaction. Options that enhance contentment are worth pursuing, but priority should be given to reported happiness and life satisfaction, as these are stronger and longer lasting indicators. In fact, many people go through very unpleasant experiences to achieve a higher goal that makes them happier in the long term.

Like contentment, also wealth has been shown to not have a strong influence on life satisfaction. While we need certain resources to fulfil our needs and to create the experiences that make us happy, both, on a personal as well as on a city level, wealth itself doesn’t make us happy. Also, we have a relative perception of wealth. We compare our life with that of those around us. If we are not worse off than other, we usually do not feel particularly unhappy.

Aspects of Happiness


Contentment should have a lower priority than other aspects of happiness, but the design and operation of a city does have influence on contentment and should choose options that result in higher total contentment, if they do not conflict with other goals.

The following factors have a positive influence on contentment:

  • Gentle surprises
  • Nice scents
  • Novelty
  • Pleasant memories
  • Soft edges

The following factors have a negative influence on contentment:

  • Darkness
  • Dead-end alleys
  • Loud, unpredictable noises
  • Sharp edges
  • Snakes and spiders

Reported Happiness

The following factors have a positive influence on reported happiness:

  • Being part of a community (e.g. church, volunteering group)
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Environment that feels good (e.g. living near garbage dumps is worse for happiness than living near an invisible toxic threat)
  • Feeling healthy (more important than being healthy)
  • Leisure time
  • Living in a small town
  • Living next to the ocean
  • Short commute

The following factors have a negative influence on reported happiness:

  • Living under a flight path
  • Persistent wind

There are some factors that are hard or impossible to change for a city (e.g. living next to the ocean), but the city does have direct or indirect influence on many of these aspects. Montgomery focuses on short commutes and environments that feel good.

Life Satisfaction

Montgomery refers to Carol Ryff and her finding that “challenged thriving” seems to make people most happy in the long term. The following factors make people satisfied with their life:

  • Environmental mastery (ability to navigate and thrive in the world)
  • Feelings of autonomy and independence
  • Personal growth throughout life
  • Positive relations with others
  • Self-acceptance
  • Sense of meaning and purpose

Cities have different degrees of influence on these factors. They do have a particularly strong influence on environmental mastery, feelings of autonomy and independence and positive relations with others. Montgomery discusses mobility in detail, which has a strong influence on environmental mastery and feelings of autonomy and independence, but also on multiple aspects of reported happiness. He also discusses several factors that impact positive relations with others.

Urban Design

Montgomery focuses on the impact of urban design on happiness. The design of mobility and its many elements has a strong influence on many aspects of happiness (contentment, reported happiness and life satisfaction). Mobility itself is influenced by density patterns, which also influence productivity and efficiency. Productivity and efficiency is also influenced by complexity patterns, which has itself impact on many other aspects of happiness, either directly or indirectly. One aspect that complexity influences is relations between people. This important aspect is also influenced by other elements of city design. In the following sections I will discuss complexity and relations between people in more detail.


Montgomery discusses three main aspects of complexity:

  • Demographics
  • Functions
  • Structure

Complexity can come from mixing people of different age, income, mobility, taste and tolerance for proximity. Complexity can also come from mixing business, education, entertainment, farming, housing, nature, shopping and transportation. Also different shapes of buildings and other structures and different elements of nature (fauna, flora, landscape) create complexity.

Mixing these demographical, functional and structural elements in a smart way can increase productivity and efficiency, and, more importantly, has direct influence on relations between people, feelings of autonomy and independence, environmental mastery, short commutes, an environment that feels good, leisure time, feeling like living in a small town, being part of a community, education, gentle surprises and novelty.

Many beneficial influences of complexity come from easier access to everything we need. Shorter distances reduce time, energy, knowledge and other resources required to get access to a product, service or activity. Other influences are psychological. Humans prefer complex (“messy”) nature and diverse facades and environments.

Complex neighbourhoods promote walking, running and cycling, which most people actually enjoy more than driving or using public transport. These activities also promote physical and mental health.

Relations between People

Montgomery discusses the importance of positive relations between people for health, happiness and life expectancy. Family and close friends are a significant factor for positive relations, but the influence of a city on those relationships are limited. However, a city can strongly influence the moderation of contact (which can, in turn, lead to new friendships), the trust in neighbours, police, government and total strangers and protection from negative impacts by others (pollution, noise, etc.). A city can control these aspects using clever design, services, policies, laws and staff (Montgomery mentions a city staffer who supposedly said that an intersection is a public space, which means nobody is allowed to use it).

For humans it is very important to have a gradual change from privacy to public space and to be in control of choosing different degrees of contact at different times. Using policies, laws and appropriate design and services, a city can provide a framework or the actual space between complete privacy and totally public space. Density and crowding are not the same. Well designed density can make people happier, whereas crowding is the effect of being physically forced together, but socially pulled apart.

Montgomery also discusses how important nature is for individuals, but also for their relations with others. Nature plays a role for both, connecting with others, as well as retreating from others. Neighbourhoods with less green courtyards experience more crime. Lack of nature makes people more aggressive and removes watching eyes to keep places safe. Nature connects people and makes them more trusting and more generous. People doing “green” volunteer work are happier and healthier than those doing other volunteer work.

Where people manage to create active communities, fewer people experience depression, people sleep better, life seems easier and more fun, neighbours seem friendlier, people rate their health better (which is more important to psychological well-being than how doctors rate the health) and there are less burglaries, assaults and vehicle thefts.


According to Montgomery, the right level of density and complexity makes people happier, but also makes operating a city cheaper and more sustainable. A complex and dense design requires less infrastructure, requires less transport and makes it more efficient where it can’t be avoided, benefits better from economies of scale and leaves more space for nature.

Information and Communication Technologies

In his book, Montgomery focuses on urban design. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) play a minor role. However, he explicitly discusses ICT in the context of mobility and sharing resources (especially vehicles). ICT makes it easier to operate, maintain and access existing infrastructure (e.g. public transport, shared vehicles, GPS navigation). ICT also allows to connect infrastructure and services in ways that were not possible before and to provide additional services at little extra cost (e.g. easy access to multiple transportation modes, consolidated real-time information, synchronisation of services). Although Montgomery mostly mentions examples in mobility, he does speak more broadly about “becoming more free by sharing space and equipment” and getting access to a function or service rather than owning a thing.

Mobility influences several aspects of reported happiness and life satisfaction. As mentioned above, mobility also makes extensive use of ICT and is therefore a good candidate to include in my own research.

Positive relations between people seems to have a very strong impact on happiness. For its significance it might be worth investigating how ICT helps improving relations in a city.

Finally, complexity impacts interpersonal relations, influences similar aspects as mobility (sometimes by reducing or removing need for mobility) and impacts happiness in additional ways. Maybe the most valuable area to focus on is how ICT is used to design smart complexity (optimisation, modelling, simulation, etc; this also reminds me on designing CPU architectures), to link together components of a complex neighbourhood (logistics, people, information about places, services, events and transportation, etc.) and to collect and use data for future improvements (reported happiness, use and state of infrastructure and services, needs and preferences, etc.). While all aspects of complexity need to be considered for a holistic approach, nature and relations between people seem to deserve special attention as they appear to have the strongest influence on happiness.