BMW Guggenheim Lab: Confronting Comfort | Charles Montgomery

Charles Montgomery
Charles Montgomery


Charles Montgomery is a journalist and urban experimentalist from Vancouver, Canada. Montgomery has discovered a striking relationship between the design of our minds and the design of our cities, a concept he lays out in his forthcoming book Happy City. Montgomery’s writings on urban planning, psychology, culture, and history have appeared in magazines and journals on three continents. His first book, The Last Heathen (published internationally as The Shark God), won the 2005 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Among his numerous other awards is a Citation of Merit for outstanding contribution toward public understanding of climate change science from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society. Montgomery has used insights in happiness science to drive experiments that help citizens transform their relationships with each other and their cities. His message is as surprising as it is hopeful: Doomsayers have warned that action to tackle the urgent challenges of climate change and energy scarcity will lead us into decades of hardship and sacrifice, but there is evidence to suggest the opposite — that the green city, the low-carbon city, and the happy city are exactly the same place.

Montgomery is part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s “Lab Team New York.” In each of the nine cities visited by the Lab, a new team convenes to develop ideas around the theme and help design a roster of public programming. For an overview of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, click here.

Comfort is an infinitely relative commodity, and thus a marker of status.
Caitlin Blanchfield (Blanchfield):

As a journalist, you have covered topics ranging from urban planning to psychology to culture and history, and now your writing focuses on climate change and the science of happiness. How do you see comfort in the city relating to individual happiness?

Charles Montgomery (CM):

There are a couple of ways to think about comfort and happiness. Psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has argued that to make an accurate measurement of any one person’s happiness, we would have to record her affect, or emotional state, almost constantly. Then we would be able to ascertain not only that person’s average level of happiness, but all the things that made her happy or sad through the day. Taking this approach, city comforts matter a great deal. Your place in the landscape — say, standing on a subway platform in infernal heat, or sitting in an air-conditioned taxicab — can make or break the so-called hedonic utility of every moment.

But in a society where most of us have access to food and shelter, comfort has assumed an even more powerful symbolic role. It is an infinitely relative commodity, and thus a marker of status. So we pursue increasingly rarified degrees of privatized comfort. How many square feet do we need in order for our homes to be comfortable? How many gadgets do we need in our cars? The answer to both questions has as much to do with what other people have as any measure of hedonic utility.

This is one reason that cities apportion comfort unfairly. Those of us who surround ourselves with private comforts tend to offload discomfort onto others. For example, drivers enjoying speedy, air-conditioned commutes along the FDR Drive deliver ongoing noise and respiratory illness to residents in Manhattan’s East River apartments. The sad fact is, our pursuit of private comfort has failed to boost overall happiness. Despite enjoying bigger houses, cars and budgets, Americans report being no happier now than they were in the 1950s. The consumer comfort project may have reached its peak hedonic utility decades ago. If happiness is as worthy a pursuit as the authors of the US Declaration of Independence believed, then we should consider new approaches to comfort in cities.


What steps need to be taken to facilitate happiness among all of the city’s diverse populations in terms of both infrastructure and culture?


The good news is that human happiness has more powerful ingredients than superficial comfort and status. Study after study has found that rich networks of friendship and trust matter more than income, status or even health. So if we really want to use comfort to boost happiness in cities, we should be finding ways to boost social comfort.

The city works as a system that configures our social lives. We can retrofit it to create more convivial public spaces and mobility experiences. Most of all, we can organize cities so that people have time to nurture the relationships of family and friends that matter most. We will get there by taking a more sophisticated approach to mobility, distance and public space. What if shared transit was the fastest, easiest and most joyful way to move? What if the people who live close together were rewarded with the highest-quality streets, parks and amenities? Are there housing designs that open up new pathways to conviviality and mutual help? Such projects are being explored right now around the world.

We want to learn how design influences the emotional experience of the city. The answers might help us design systems that are not just more efficient, but happier.


Cities are constantly changing, but it seems like notions of happiness and of comfort are relatively stable. How do you reconcile the ever-evolving urban landscape with an essential pursuit of happiness?


I don’t quite agree with your assumptions. While human happiness seems to be nurtured by a few enduring ingredients — feelings of safety, security, status, meaning, good health and strong social bonds, to name a few — the culture’s idea of happiness is constantly in flux. We change our minds over time, and cities change their shape in response to current ideas about the good life. Just as the agora was the centre of city life in ancient Athens, where the good life was a very public project, now the detached suburban house has been adopted as the destination in most Americans’ pursuit of happiness.

The problem is, behavioral economists have plenty of evidence to show that we have not evolved to be very good at knowing or choosing what makes us happy. We get it wrong, time and again. Our most common error? Over-valuing material comforts, and under-valuing experiences and relationships. I believe that new insights from neuroscience, behavioral economics and psychology provide evidence to point us back in the right direction. The city really can be a machine for happiness.


Climate change, a salient issue in all cities, is particularly critical in New York given its coastal location. How do you think New Yorkers can best prepare for and try to prevent the effects of climate change, and do you believe the lab as both a forum for discussion and a piece of architecture can help to address climate change?


The low-carbon city and the more comfortable, convivial city can be the same place. Many of the changes required to lower our carbon footprint can also make city life richer and easier. New York City has begun to explore this path. By converting car lanes to bike lanes and high-quality pedestrian spaces, for example, the city is rewarding people who walk and cycle. Of course this creates an immediate sense of discomfort for people who have no choice but to drive. But over time, the experience of cities such as Copenhagen and Bogotá show that such changes gradually nudge people to alter their relationship to the city. The long-distance commuter may move closer to work. She may then suddenly have more time at the end of the day for her family. She may build stronger relationships with her neighbors — just the kind that might make her stronger and more resilient in the challenging decades to come.


In your bio, you refer to yourself as an “urban experimentalist.” What types of experiments are you planning to conduct in the Lab?


I am interested in how public space and mobility systems change the way we feel and behave. To this end, I am working with a brilliant Canadian psychologist named Colin Ellard to map out the emotional landscape of public space in Lower Manhattan. We can’t do this without the help of hundreds of lab visitors. We’ll equip participants with mobile devices that prompt them for their emotional response as they move across various urban transects. From this, we’ll push data to online maps, showing aggregate levels of arousal and affect. In the last month of the lab, we will take this testing to the next level. Using various gadgets Dr. Ellard has collected or built, we will test how these same places influence participants’ bodies. This may include heart rate, skin conductance and other measures of arousal and anxiety.

From this we hope to learn more about how design influences the emotional experience of the city. How many trees does it take to dull the emotional effect of car-filled streets? When does crossing the street cause a spike in anxiety? Do we feel happier walking along blank walls or shop fronts? How do recent street changes in New York influence brain activity? The answers might help city builders design systems that are not just more efficient, but happier.

I’m also fascinated by how we react to strangers in different urban contexts. Research shows that most city dwellers are extremely helpful and trustworthy, yet we tend to believe the opposite. So I have invited relational specialist Kio Stark to challenge lab visitors to go out and confront total strangers, and observe what happens. We believe that people’s reactions to these encounters will be mediated by their surroundings. If so, then we might begin to consider how to redesign spaces to boost conviviality.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.