Friday, August 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

New Jersey and the New Urbanism

By Steven Fulop

Once the place people couldn't wait to leave, cities are now where more and more people want to live, work, and play. This isn't an accident. The high-rise apartments and closely located brownstones that represent many American cities are now recognized as integral to community living.

What's more, long drives from remote suburbs to offices in cities have taken a toll on commuters. Urban dwellers are finding there is a correlation between shorter commutes and happiness, and this realization is helping to make cities a focus for growth.

That's why Charles Montgomery's new book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design is so timely. Montgomery's enthusiastic style of writing sets the tone for what's happening in many mid-size and large cities in New Jersey, in the United States, and throughout the world.

Populations in cities have reversed decades of loss by growing in the last 10 years. Coming out of the Great Recession, the number of urban residents has rapidly increased and Montgomery, a journalist from Canada, puts his finger on why. He believes the way cities are built powerfully influences moods and behavior and, done correctly, will lead to happier lives.

He's right. I've seen the results of good design coupled with park, recreation, and green-space expansion in Jersey City and have talked with many other urban mayors throughout the state and the country who agree as well.

Montgomery writes that smart urban design is a "challenge that lives in the way we build, but also in the way we think. It lives in the tensions that exist within each and every one of us - that endless tug-of-war between fear and trust, between status aspirations and the cooperative impulse, between the urge to retreat and the need to engage with other people." In other words, smart design is all about what it's like to live in a city.

Almost by definition, cities are melting pots where "participation and community are possible," professor Benjamin Barber notes in his recent book If Mayors Ruled the World. Barber believes mayors are pragmatists because they are results-oriented - but they are also optimists who believe they can improve the lives of their constituents by providing the services they need. Contrast that optimism on the local level with the pessimism too many see in Washington. Who would you rather follow?

And that is exactly why cities are growing. Montgomery uses studies to show how unhappy people are those who have long commutes - not just when they are in their cars, but how they view their quality of life as a whole. He uses these studies to urge smarter land use in urban areas and makes a persuasive argument.

Montgomery takes us from ancient Athens to modern cities - stopping for a moment to describe Thomas Jefferson's vision of Washington, D.C., as an urban success - to show how the happiness of city residents is enhanced by thoughtful planning. The core of what he sees as crucial urban design includes parks that are plentiful and for all, bike lanes for quick commutes, attractive and sensible mass-transit options, and ample walking space for pedestrians. They are all meant to create a level of satisfaction for residents not matched in the suburbs.

It's a vision many smart cities and municipalities are implementing today. In densely populated New Jersey, "transit villages" are the embodiment of Montgomery's theories and they are being considered or developed throughout the state. Transit villages are seen as a key component of the New Urbanism design movement. Apartments and townhouses are built near train stations and retail that encourage pedestrians to enjoy their neighborhoods and have shorter commutes to work. More than two dozen New Jersey municipalities have completed or are pursuing these developments, including Collingswood, Burlington City, and Pleasantville, making our state a leader in the movement nationally.

Montgomery is off on one overarching point: that cars are bad and the suburbs were a mistake from the get-go. As a child of a suburb in the most suburban state in the nation, I can attest that there is an importance and culture to cars that can't be overlooked. In addition, to many of their residents, most American suburban towns have a strong sense of community as well. For proof, just go to a high school football game anywhere in New Jersey or Pennsylvania on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

Still, Happy City must be read by planners, developers, real estate attorneys, and academics. The New Urbanism that Montgomery supports is crucial to keeping our cities vibrant. Just as important is his clarion call of protecting our environment. By redeveloping our cities, we protect suburban and rural open spaces and cut down on energy use. By itself, protecting natural resources and improving our environment should make people happy.

But think about the broader impact of Montgomery's approach. Are we happy where we live and is their a way to improve our lives though smart planning and design? Happy City is a strong argument for yes. Reimagining our cities is not just a theory for urban planners, but is in practice worldwide. We are working through new projects to make cities more livable and, yes, more enjoyable.

Montgomery sets a high bar for urban governments. It is a worthy goal, one that mayors I know in cities throughout New Jersey and the United States want to achieve.

Steven Fulop is mayor of Jersey City.

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