Are you in your Happy Place?

As People Flee Dense Cities, Consider How Urban Sprawl Impacts your Happiness

I spent my entire childhood and part of my adult life in a bucolic town in Southwestern Connecticut. There was a lot to love about it: beautiful landscapes, vivid seasons, and swaths of undisturbed land. Winding back roads, clear night skies, and the undisturbed sounds of birds and crickets.

Parents-to-be and burnt out corporate workers seem to flock to more rural areas like my hometown once the dazzle of the city fades and they yearn for a slower and more simple way of life for their budding families. Notably, there was a lot of talk of mass migration out of cities to more open areas during the COVID lockdowns. The myth of the fairytale suburb isn’t completely unfounded, but things aren’t as rosy as they seem.

As someone who has struggled with depression, I want to optimize my life for happiness – and that means taking a hard look at where I spend my time. I’ve discussed before how depression is a product of both inner and external forces including our genes and our environment. Of the many areas to cover in our external world, I’m going to focus on the places we live. The towns and cities in which we choose to stay are configured in ways that influence us, unseen.

The unfortunate truth is that urban planners aren’t thinking of your happiness when they create places to live, whether intentional or not. Both cities and suburbs have been designed with archaic regulations1 in mind. Only quite recently have urban planners and policy-makers started to consider the effects of design on health and happiness.

Most of us can’t reconfigure the place in which we live on a larger scale or just move out. Even if we could, pretty much every town and city in the world faces at least some aspects of “unhappy” design. Before designers and planners catch up to the science, it’s up to us to weigh the positives against the negatives when choosing a place to live and making the most of it when we’re stuck. Let’s take a look at the major pitfalls from the recent generations of urban sprawl.

Setting aside the positive aspects of the type of place in which I grew up, I was impacted by its design in some negative ways. My town was almost completely car-centric. If you wanted to get anywhere, you had to drive. There were a couple exceptions to this – for example, you could walk around the “town center” or walk to your friend’s house down the street. Unfortunately, most roads were too dangerous for walking and not designed with pedestrians in mind. Complete reliance on cars was tough on me as a kid and severely limited my ability to go places at will, especially with two working parents. Before I could drive on my own, I always had to make sure I could get a ride before doing anything.

I lived in the same town during the beginning of my career and I saw and felt the effects of a car-centric metro area. Every morning, the roads were jam packed with workers commuting South to New York City, then all over again heading back North during the evening rush hour. Sitting on a crowded highway in stop and go traffic is far from pleasant.

The car is a remarkable invention, so it makes sense that ever since cars became more readily available, our lives got better, right? Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Cars have given us the freedom to cross distances in less time and are sometimes (depending on where you live in the world) affordable and accessible for many classes of people.

There is a dark side to the freedom that cars bring. Originally, cities were built to prioritize pedestrians. Accordingly, there were mixed-use buildings because people needed the ability to walk to work, shops, and their homes. Exercise and community were instinctively built into the pedestrian-centric neighborhood. On the other hand, the car-centric city prioritizes one form of transportation above all others, further incentivizing people to continue driving cars.

For all the perks of being able to drive from place to place, being forced to drive everywhere is actually an inconvenience. Of course, ownership, storage, maintenance, and fuel all cost money. But the biggest cost of a car-centric society is the cost to our mental health.

These days, it seems like it’s trendy to talk about how much you hate people on social media. People joke about how they hate being around others and just want to sit alone binge-watching TV. However, that hate doesn’t match up with the reality that having friends, people we trust, makes us happier and healthier2. One of the notable effects of the car-centric town or city is the impact on relationships and community, which are deeply tied to our personal happiness.

A 2011 Swedish study discovered that those who commuted 45 or more minutes showed a greater likelihood of divorce (a whopping 40% increase)3 . There are concerns about other connections as well; those living in dispersed, unwalkable areas are less trusting of others and less likely to be involved with neighbors, social groups, and politics3. These looser connections are important as well for enhancing self esteem and physical health4.

It goes without saying that a car-centric area would directly impact our physical health as well. Residents of “sprawl” are more likely to face obesity, higher mortality rates, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes compared to residents in more compact, walkable areas5. Some research points to public transportation accessibility and urban density as factors in reducing the risk of depression by giving people natural opportunities to be active and social6.

Does this mean we should eradicate cars? That would be extreme. Cars do a lot for us. If, however, you are prone to depression or if you just want to live a healthier and happier lifestyle, it’s prudent to consider how the layout of your city will impact the type of transportation you use and the effects of that transportation. Consider just how much time you have to spend in the car in your day to day life.

So should we all move to the city? Well, that’s not necessarily the answer either. A lot of more historical cities were built with pedestrians in mind (in a time before cars). However, through expansion or by design, there are lots of cities where you need a car just to get around (anecdotally, this is true of cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta.) Dense cities also face their own concerns, like excessive stimuli (noise and light pollution, to name a few).

If you find yourself living in a dispersed city, a suburb, or an exurb, you can mitigate the risks and you should keep a few considerations in mind to reduce potential mental health effects:

  • How much time are you spending in your car? If you have to drive to get everywhere, you’ll have to schedule or bake some movement and exercise into your daily routine.
  • How much social interaction are you getting? There’s less friction to staying at home, particularly if you work remotely. Try to break out of your comfort zone by finding groups with similar interests and meet new people. The positive effects of socializing don’t level off until after about 6-7 hours per day7!
  • Are you connected to your community? If you commute to work, you may be spending the bulk of your time in a different place. Even if you work from home, you can go for years without meeting your neighbors (I know this from personal experience). Form some ties to your community by meeting neighbors or getting involved in initiatives or local groups.

The bustling city and the traditional suburb aren’t the answer to our happiness; it’s more nuanced than that. It’s somewhere in between yet separate from these two characterizations. There’s no perfect paradise that will make us happy (though there are ideas that come close), however, we can seriously consider how our towns and cities affect our everyday lives and in order to mitigate the risks while embracing the elements of happy design.

For more information on how urban design affects our happiness, I strongly recommend reading Happy City.

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  1. Montgomery, C., 2013. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp.63-77.
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2019, August 24). Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/friendships/art-20044860
  3. Montgomery, C., 2013. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp.55.
  4. Montgomery, C., 2013. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp.127.
  5. Yan, Y., Liu, H., & He, C. (2021). How Does Urban Sprawl Affect Public Health? Evidence from Panel Survey Data in Urbanizing China. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(19), 10181. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8508061/#:~:text=In%20fact%2C%20urban%20sprawl%20also,dementia%20%5B49%2C50%5D
  6. Melis, G., Gelormino, E., Marra, G., Ferracin, E., & Costa, G. (2015). The Effects of the Urban Built Environment on Mental Health: A Cohort Study in a Large Northern Italian City. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(11), 14898–14915. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4661687/
  7. Montgomery, C., 2013. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp.58.

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