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Can We Make a Happier City?

Participants at Saturday's Happy City event experience the "subway squeeze." Photo: courtesy Charles Montgomery

If you read last week’s excerpt from Lab Team member Charles Montgomery’s Happy City, or if you heard him speak yesterday on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, you know his new book examines how urban design affects our well being. What you might not know is that Montgomery himself exudes the joy he hopes to see in our cities. On Saturday, standing before a packed room at his talk—one of the programs being held at the Guggenheim in conjunction with the BMW Guggenheim Lab exhibition Participatory City—his enthusiasm beamed from the podium. He was also quick to clarify that this would not be a “talk” in the usual sense. “The Lab enabled so many people from so many different disciplines to play together,” he said. “We thought maybe one last time we’d take ourselves back to that Lab environment.”

Montgomery then invited the audience to join in three intriguing experiments during the following forty minutes. The first, inspired by the photographs of Richard Rinaldi, involved having your picture taken together with someone you’d never met; the second Montgomery described as the “subway squeeze”—a simulation of the New York City subway experience. For the third experiment, he offered to pay us each ten dollars if we spent eight minutes in a mysterious “virtual reality” booth.

Perplexed but curious, we all moved around the room, choosing our first experiments to join. As my guest for the evening was none other than my mother, in New York for a visit, I accompanied her to her first choice: the photo experiment. Mom met Jeanette, a total stranger to her, and photographer Seth Geiser asked them to share one recent happy experience, and then imagine that they had known each other for years, and that they had just been reunited. They wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders, and grinned convincingly, cheek-to-cheek, as Geiser snapped their portrait. He then asked them to take part in a poll on a seemingly unrelated question: if your wallet was stolen, do you think it would be returned to you? They rated the likelihood of getting their wallets back, and parted ways with a smile.

Next stop was the subway squeeze. Mom and I and a group of 13 others were herded into a canvas-walled “subway car”; as we stood there, the walls were shifted closer and closer together, bringing us cheek-by-jowl with other participants. “I’m glad everyone smells good,” someone said.

By the time we made it to the black-cardboard-sided virtual-reality booth, our allotted time for experiment participation was up. But we were soon able to satisfy our curiosity about the booths and the results from the rest of the experiments. Taking the podium again, Montgomery explained that the seemingly odd lost-wallet question posed after the photographs had also been asked of those who hadn’t bonded with a stranger for a portrait. The portrait subjects proved more trusting, certain that their wallets would be returned.

The results of the subway squeeze came from participants who wore wristbands with sensors. Predictably, despite our friendly (and sweet-smelling) crowd, their stress levels rose as their personal space was reduced.

As for the virtual reality test-takers, some were immersed in a view of a sunlit savannah, accompanied by sounds of birdsong; others were faced with an image of a concrete façade, with loud city noises in the background. The ten-dollar payment, it turned out, was a bit of a ruse to test the effects of these “environments”: after the test, participants were asked if they’d be willing to donate their promised ten-dollar fee, or part of it, to charity. Montgomery announced that the charity had earned more donations from the savannah-viewing people than those confronted with the bleak urban scene.

What to conclude from these investigations into the urban psyche? As Montogomery explained, among the things proven to increase urban happiness, exposure to green space and strong social ties are paramount. “More trust equals more happy,” said Montgomery. “Yes, we can design more happiness into our cities, but it’s better if we can do it together.” Seems our 40 minutes of laughing, chatting, and trying new things amounted to a living illustration of the important, positive effect of urban collaboration.

Talking about our evening on the way home, my mom said of the photo experiment, “I felt like kind of a goof doing it, but the tenor of the evening was to play—so I played.” Well put, Mom. When it comes to making happier cities, maybe we all need to be a little more willing to jump in the game.

Join us Sunday, December 1 for our next Lab talk with architect, founder of Dynamic City Foundation, and former Lab Team member Neville Mars. He’ll be discussing his Lab project, the Water Bench, an urban bench that collects rainwater.