May 21, 2019

Houssam Elokda on the Heliopolis Effect, Happy Cities, and Doing Nothing Together

It’s not Vancouver, but it sounds like the Vancouver we want to be: multi-family residential buildings located close to the urban centre. Generously spaced laneways and semi-private lots for kids to play. Sufficient access to high storefronts, services and other amenities, in ever-expanding concentric circles of community, neighbourhood, and city.

It’s Heliopolis — once a suburb 10 kilometres outside of Cairo, today swallowed up by the city. And like most neighbourhoods in Vancouver, it’s highly sought-after by Egypt’s urban elite as a place to live, and invest.

It’s also just over a century old, and has also inspired a namesake design genre (Vancouverism, meet Heliopolis Style). And like Vancouver, Heliopolis has done many things right, and yet could be simultaneously teetering on the precipice of “too much, too soon”.

Houssam Elokda tells the story of his childhood home, the urban/suburban dichotomy he found as a young adult in Halifax, and how Charles Montgomery’s Happy City design philosophy affected him deeply.

It also ended up employing him. Today, at just 26 years old, Elokda is Operations Manager and Masterplanning Lead for the urban planning, design and architecture consultancy born of Montgomery’s book.

Speaking to Gord on a Ramadan fast day, Elokda turns what should be a low-energy, baseline rally on easy topics, into a fascinating serve-and-volley on some pretty deep ideas. About happiness, and the role of ‘tribal’ affiliations. On what architecture can and can’t do, and on finding his footing in Vancouver’s invitation-only culture.

Is there an architecture of loneliness, a way to engineer happiness? Or are people more likely to interact in larger numbers, and in greater proximity, to one other?

And who’s in your tribe?

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Happy Streets Living Lab: Presented by City of VancouverMODUS, Urban Realities Laboratory and Happy City Lab is an experiment that will take place during Project for Public Space’s Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference on September 12 – 14, 2016.

The Happy Streets Living Lab will combine research rigor with fun tours of Vancouver, where participants learn about their own physical and emotional responses to the city. It is a valuable opportunity to bring people from around the world together to learn best practices in creating happy spaces that promote social interaction and build trust. The project partners are excited to share this innovative project with conference attendees. ….

Each tour will end with a group discussion of the data collected during the tour and the implications for urban planning, and public health and safety. Preliminary results from all the tours will then be shared with conference participants in a plenary session. …

Space for this free experiment is limited. People are encouraged to register now and participate in this groundbreaking public space research.

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Beth Sanders, a principle at POPULUS community planning inc., writes on her blog: 

10 big ideas sparked from reading Happy City by Charles Montgomery

Over the course of the summer I have been rereading Charles Montgomery’s book,  Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, teasing out the city essentials for city life. Here are some big ideas that have surfaced for me in the posts…

Here’s what jumps out at me.
1. The city is a shared project that allows us to thrive together.
2. Our social habitats struggle when our physical habitat is dispersed.
3. The professionals who design our cities are only part of the picture.
4. Everyone, everywhere can actively work to build the city that will save the world.
5. People want to be close to each other and apart at the same time.
6. A city is not happy when the only way to move around is by car.
7. Happiness in the city is about fairness.
8. Multiple modes of transportation allows us to tap into the abundance of everything, everywhere.
9. Change the code, change the city.
10. Citizens can change the city by thinking about it differently.

She describes each in more detail at Let the happy city grow you.

I summarized each chapter of the book here.

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Selected quotes from each chapter in Charles Montgomery’s new book – Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.  

The last chapters: ‘Save Your City, Save Yourself’ and ‘Epilogue’

Who has the right to shape the city?  The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre once offered a straightforward answer.  This right is not something that can be bequeathed by the state.  It is not an accident of ethnicity or nationality or birthplace.  It is earned through the act of habitation.

… that great irony of the American city: a nation that celebrates freedom and weaves liberty into its national myth rarely gives regular people the chance to shape their own communities. … Scant few neighbourhoods in North America feature places that draw people together regularly for anything other than buying stuff.

We have been seduced by the wrong technologies.  We gave up true freedom for the illusory promise of speed.  We valued status over relationships.  We tried to stamp out complexity instead of harnessing it.  We let powerful people organize buildings, work, home, and transportation systems around too simplistic a view of geography and of life itself.

This is the truth that shines over the journey toward the happy city.  We do not need to wait for someone else to make it.  We build it when we move a little bit closer.  We build it when we choose to move a little slower.  We build it by choosing to put aside our fear of the city and other people.  We build the happy city by pursuing it in our own lives and, in so doing, pushing the city to change with us.  We build it by living it.

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Selected quotes from each chapter in Charles Montgomery’s new book – Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.  

Today: ‘Retrofitting sprawl.’

“Cities have been blown out of proportion, as though we were designing them for giants.  What we were doing, of course, was designing for the scale of cars.  Now we are returning cities to a human scale.  We are returning the balance of life to neighbourhoods.” – Galina Tachieva

True repair addresses the systemic problems of sprawl.  By mixing shopping, services, and public space with housing, it allows people to escape the bonds of their seat belts and walk if they wish.  It creates a critical demand for transit, and comfortable places to wait for it.  It links streets to surrounding networks, making walking easier and extending tendrils of easier living, good health, sociability, and connectivity.

The problem is that most sprawl has already been sold, zoned, and occupied, locking the existing system of land use into place.  … “However neutral the language is (of codes), however neutral the metrics, however fair it seems to be, the outcome it has in mind is sprawl.”

The greatest problem facing anyone who would repair sprawl remains the godlike power of code.  Code is to the city what an operating system is to a computer.  It is invisible, but it is in charge.

Even when communities and decision makers agree that the old sprawl patterns are not sustainable, the dispersal system can rumble on a like a runaway truck, propelled by the momentum of a century of rules, guidelines, and state-mandated community plans.

… the dispersed city that the Tea Partiers defend so passionately is, itself, a product of centralized control and legislation.

Cities have always expressed a tension between individual property rights and common benefits.  But the Tea Party urbanists take a dangerously narrow view of liberty.  Surely a city of true freedom would provide maximum choice about where and how to live.

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Selected quotes from each chapter in Charles Montgomery’s new book – Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.  

Today: Everything is connected to everything else.’

” … ‘hedonistic sustainability’ – the idea that sustainability is not a burden, but that a sustainable city in fact can improve our quality of life.” – Bjarke Ingels.

We have all heard skeptics who warn that serious action to fight climate change and energy scarcity will lead us into decades of hardship and sacrifice.  When it comes to cities, they are absolutely wrong.  In fact, sustainability and the good life can be by-products of the very same interventions.

The happy city plan is an energy plan.   It is a climate plan.  It is a belt-tightening plan for cash-strapped cities.  It is also an economic plan, a jobs plan, and a corrective for weak systems.  It is a plan for resilience.

… the dispersed city that nudges millions of people toward inactivity – and exposes them to air pollution and traffic crashes – simultaneously creates financial burdens for all of society.

Bogota’s TransMilenio, New York’s bike lanes, and Vancouver’s laneway housing project are all exercises in long-term austerity.

… the city is a fantastically complex organism that can be thrown into an unhealthy imbalance by attempts to simplify it in form or function.  … The dispersalists saw order and efficiency in their segregated systems, but in many cases they were merely transferring energy costs from industry to regular citizens and governments.  … classic sprawl depends on cheap energy, and lots of it, to function. … The relationship is clear: as emissions go up, operational affordability goes down.

Many North American cities are just waking up to the fact that they have been engaging in a massive urban Ponzi scheme, with new development creating short-term benefits in development fees and tax revenues but even bigger long-term costs that pile up faster than cities’ ability to pay them off.

… thanks to the relationship between energy and distance, large-footprint sprawl development patterns can actually cost cities more to service than they give back in taxes. The result?  Growth that produces deficits that simply cannot be overcome with new growth revenue.

… when regular people and city builders alike embrace complexity and the inherent interconnectedness of city life, when we move a little closer, we begin to free ourselves from the enslaving hunger for scarce energy.  We can live well and save the world at the very same time.

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Selected quotes from each chapter in Charles Montgomery’s new book – Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.  

Today: ‘Who is the city for?’

Urban spaces and systems do not merely reflect altruistic attempts to solve the complex problem of people living close together …  They are shaped by struggles between competing groups of people.

Who should share in the public wealth of the city?

“One of the requirements for happiness is equality …  Maybe not equality of income, but equality of quality of life and, more than that, an environment where people don’t feel inferior, where people don’t feel excluded” – Enrique Penalosa.

… having less is okay, but having less than everyone else feels awful.  We can’t help but judge our position relative to every one else. … Some economists argue that status gaps are so harmful that we should treat them like pollution and use the tax system to close them.

… new plans that threaten the urban design status quo face deep and emotional opposition.  … Resistance to urban renovations is driven partly by deeply held beliefs about the relationship between urban form and culture, and what it means to be free in cities.  … Some of this backlash stems from stakeholders’ fear of losing the right to live and move as they have become accustomed.

These inequities need to be confronted: in part for the sake of the poor, who have every bit as much right to the public benefits of the city as the wealthy; in part for the soul of the city  … and in part for the purely pragmatic reasons – in a fairer city, life can be better for everyone.

But we face a couple of daunting challenges …  The happy redesigns I’ve been talking about – from bike lanes, traffic calming, good transit, and pop-up plazas to bylaws that ensure vibrant commercial streets – appear first in favoured districts because their residents have the time, money, and political influence to make them happen.  The other is that … such livability measures actually drive up land values.

We can make cities that are more generous and less cruel.  We can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active, and more free.  We just have to decide who our cities are for.  And we have to believe that they can change.

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Selected quotes from each chapter in Charles Montgomery’s new book – Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.  

Today: Mobilities 2: Freedom.’

To depend on just one technology for urban mobility would be to deny human nature itself.  Each of us has a unique set of abilities, weaknesses, and desires.  Each of us is compelled and thrilled by a unique set of sensations.  Each trip demands a unique solution.

Cities should strive to embrace complexity, not just in transportation systems but in human experience.  … merely banning cars is just as simplistic as depending on them entirely – Eric Britton.

…improving the experience of moving by transit … depends on a matrix of predictability, comfort, and the perception of passing time. … Innovations tend to take place where policy makers actually ride public transit.

… the shared bicycle is the ultimate postconsumer machine … “We don’t take shopping carts home after using them at the supermarket.  We don’t cart around our own elevators or restaurants or airplanes.  Why should we be forced by urban design to own cars and bicycles?” – Denis Baupin.

“The bottom line on all these changes is more choice, less cost for those who can forgo car ownership, less car traffic, more exercise, safer streets, and liberated garages” – Peter Ladner.

If we really care about freedom for everyone, we need to design for everyone – not just the brave. … And there is a vast difference between safe travel and travel that feels safe. … You must go beyond accident statistics to consider how people feel about moving.

… congestion is an entirely natural feature of any vibrant city.  So we should differentiate between types of congestion.  It is not moving vehicles per se that nourish the city, but people and goods.  Traffic that delivers the highest volume of people and goods for every square foot of infrastructure is clearly best for the city – and arguably best for travellers themselves.

… an ethical question.  Should a public resource like city streets be reserved primarily for people who can afford to pay a premium for it?

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Selected quotes from each chapter in Charles Montgomery’s new book – Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.  

Today: Mobilities 1: How moving feels, and why it does not feel better.’

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.

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.

…every commute is a ritual that can alter our very sense of who we are and what is our place in the world.

… driving your own car embodies the psychological state known as mastery: drivers report feeling much more in charge of their lives than transit users or even their own passengers.  … the experience of driving a hot car triggered a hormonal response even when their were no hot babes to impress.  No wonder four in then Americans actually claim to love their cars.

… the problem is that cars fail to deliver the experience of freedom and speed that we all know they are capable of bestowing in a world of open roads.  The urban system neutralizes their power.  … The blood of people who drive in cities is a high-test stew of stress hormones.  The worse the traffic, the more your system is flooded (that) in the long term can make you ill.

One group of commuters reports enjoying themselves more than everyone else.  Their route to happy mobility is simple.  There are people who travel on their own steam.  They walk.  They run.  They ride bicycles.

We have evolved to get smarter and cheerier when we exercise provided we can do it someplace where we aren’t burning, freezing, terrified, or in other mortal danger.  …

… cyclists report feeling connected to the world around them in a way that is simply not possible in the sealed environment of an automobile or a bus or a subway car.  Their journeys are both sensual and kinesthetic. … Yet the travel mode rated the most fun, efficient, and joyful has been avoided by all but a tiny fraction of North American travelers, even in dense, connected communities.

… transit riders are the most miserable commuters of all.  American transit users – the bulk of whom rely on buses – are most likely to feel that their trips take too long and the most likely to be depressed by their journeys. … In cities where transit is meant only as a service for the poor, riding the typical urban bus can be hell on your self-esteem.

How do we build systems that truly make us free in cities?

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