Today’s Bacon is brought to you by Louise Bryan, a long-time and beloved book club friend and current candidate for Belle Meade City Commissioner. You get to know someone pretty well over many years of book club, and I’d like to share a few observations: Louise is bright, capable, calm, sensible and moderate in all things. She’s a planner. She’s good at both listening and talking. She is deeply kind. I hope she has a chance to serve her community in the public realm! Today, she shares her thoughts on Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery.
Two of my children have taken an English class at their high school called “The Good Life.” My oldest daughter thought it sounded fun. Countless essays by Aristotle, Wolfe, and Huxley later, she realized her mistake. She also concluded it was a life-changing course and eventually convinced her younger brother to enroll in the same class. He’s not a philosopher but he’s got the idea: “Mom, it’s complicated.”
In Happy City, Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery sorts through the complexity of what brings happiness to contemporary city dwellers with his data-driven work. At the intersection of psychology and architecture, Montgomery urges city planners to adopt design that increases happiness in the way we live, work, and relax.
Simply put, research reveals that the suburbs can make people sick. With car culture firmly established in America by the 20th century, moving away from the sins and chaos of the city was encouraged as a way to give children a better place to grow up. In more recent years, the cul-de-sac provided families with a detached house, green lawns and curvy roads leading to big box retailers. These car-dependent enclaves reorganized family and social life to such a great extent that psychologists now know teens from the suburbs – in the “dispersed city” – are more prone to emotional problems than their urban counterparts. Suburban youths lack the peace of mind that comes with strong parental attachments because their parents are too busy in the car, with time-consuming work commutes, long distance errands, and driving to sports and extracurricular activities. Residents live in a social desert where hanging out with friends and creating social groups depends on car ownership.
Furthermore, social psychologists have concluded the “lighter relationships” we have with volunteer groups, neighbors, and even with people we see regularly on the street can boost our emotional state and physical health. The roles we assume with spouses, children and co-workers are obligation-dependent, and the dispersed city puts us in constant contact with these more challenging relationships. Even the geometry of the cul-de-sac makes it harder to get out of the “role strain” and casually run into a friend on the street.
Montgomery asserts that what works best is a balance of control and conviviality. Studies show that college students living in dorm rooms along a single long corridor feel crowded, irritated, and stressed out. The hall design makes it difficult for students to start a conversation with another student on the hall. In contrast, suite-style residential design encourages relationship building as students have more opportunity to build casual contact over the school year and create friendships.
For city dwellers, multi-family apartments benefit from shared landings and front doors facing common gardens. These architectural elements contribute to easy relationship building. In single family homes, the opportunity to see a neighbor’s driveway or back door creates soft zones where conversations begin. Social geometry plays an important part in front yards as psychologists have determined that homeowners chat most with neighbors when yards are shallow enough for conversation but deep enough for retreat. The perfect yard depth for sociability is 10.6 feet.
Montgomery’s happiness thesis calls on individuals to make sound choices when establishing work decisions. That is, getting to work. The single decision of how far to travel to work plays a crucial role in overall life satisfaction. Several studies have shown that people who commit to long drives experience higher blood pressure, get more headaches, and will be grumpier when they arrive at work compared to workers with shorter travel times. Even more alarming: a person with a one hour commute must earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Beware any drastic decisions as the journey to work does fulfill some psychological needs. The average person enjoys the “ritual transition” from home to work and 16 minutes one-way is the ideal commute time before negative symptoms set in.
After design direction about home and work, Montgomery tackles free time drawing upon the studies of Danish architect Jan Gehl. By observing human activity in “cities which had not been reorganized by planners or invaded by cars,” Gehl discovered that people naturally congregate and linger in spaces that are pedestrian and leisure oriented. This focus on people-centered cities has been tested and applied all over the world, most famously in New York with the transformation of Times Square into a pedestrian circus.
Psychologists know the most looming threat to public space is the automobile and challenge planners to consider whether a city should serve pedestrians, cars, or both. Noise, traffic and speed threatens neighborhoods and reduces the opportunity for walkability. Heavily trafficked streets reduce the number of friends a person has on that street and makes us less likely to assist strangers. Communities can think differently about streets. Some cities have taken back their streets from motor dominance with pavement grabs creating part-time linear parks for pedestrians, cyclists, yogis, and dancers.
The opportunity to balance our life in neighborhoods and cities is real. Residents can encourage city leaders to consider broader planning before making short term decisions about streets, sidewalks, and parks. Happy City is an important read as our beloved Nashville faces the challenges of development and growth. Don’t get me wrong, “transforming our lives” is no small task. My family household includes a 2.5 hour commute, a big house in the suburbs, and a 200 foot front yard setback.
I know – it’s complicated.
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From Green Hills News:
Louise Bryan, born in New Orleans, first arrived in Nashville as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University. Pursuing a career in finance, Louise worked in London, Charlotte, and Chicago, where she completed her MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. In 2001, Louise and her husband John, a native of West Point, Mississippi, purchased Savannah Food Company, a Tennessee-based food manufacturer, and soon after made Belle Meade their home.
Louise is principal of Bryan Communications, working with nonprofits in marketing and communication strategy.
… Louise believes strongly that local issues matter because neighborhoods, the foundation of our larger communities, should be safe, beautiful and fiscally sound.