How Urban Design Influences How Many Friends You Have

Rob McDowell lived in a hip, luxury condo with a sweeping view of Vancouver, but he was miserable. A move within the same exact building complex changed everything about his life–and should change how we design our cities.

How Urban Design Influences How Many Friends You Have
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Rob was single and had no kids, so five hundred square feet seemed quite enough, especially given the panoramic view from his floor-to-ceiling windows. He could see the ocean. He could see islands in the distance. He could look over the other towers to the forested slopes of the North Shore Mountains. When the fog rolled in, he floated above it. The place wrapped biophilic views, status, and privacy in a neat package.


“I invited all my friends up there to see the view,” he told me later. “I was so happy.”

But that changed as the months went past.

Whenever McDowell left his apartment, he would follow a hallway he shared with twenty people to an elevator he shared with nearly three hundred people. When the elevator door opened, he could never be sure whom he would see inside, but they were almost never his own neighbors. Standing a foot or two apart, well within the zone of personal space and unable to control the duration of the encounter, McDowell and his neighbors would studiously avoid eye contact, gazing up instead at the LED floor display. Like Baum’s dorm residents, McDowell felt increasingly claustrophobic. His view was no salve for solitude. “You go up the elevator, into your apartment, the door closes, and there you are, stuck alone with your beautiful view,” he said. “I began to resent it.”

McDowell’s Vancouverist tower, so successful in delivering views of nature and a sense of status, was falling short as a social tool. This became clear when his life suddenly changed course.

The city had forced the 501’s developer to build a row of town houses along the podium base of McDowell’s tower. The townhouses were a bit cramped, but their main doors all faced a garden and a volleyball court on the building’s third-story rooftop. McDowell noticed that the town house residents regularly played volleyball in the garden. He and his tower-living neighbors had every right to join in, but they never did. It was as though, by their proximity, the town house residents owned that space.

After some friends moved into the town houses, McDowell gave up his view and bought a unit next to them. Within weeks his social landscape was transformed. He got to know all his new neighbors. He joined in the weekend cocktail and volleyball sessions in the shared garden. He felt as if he had come home.


McDowell’s new neighbors were not inherently more likable or friendly than his tower neighbors. So what had drawn them together? In some ways, their behavior was predicted by decades of sociology similar to Baum’s campus studies. The front doors of the town houses all led to semiprivate porches overlooking the podium garden. They provided regular opportunities for brief, easy contact. These porches were a soft zone, where you could hang out or retreat as you wished. (What would happen if a tower dweller decided to just “hang out” in the hallway in the adjoining tower? Not only would he be bored and uncomfortable, but eventually someone would call the police.) Without realizing it, McDowell and his neighbors were testing out a law of social geometry identified by Danish urbanist Jan Gehl. In studying the way people in Denmark and Canada behave in their front yards, Gehl found that residents chat the most with passersby when yards are shallow enough to allow for conversation, but deep enough to allow for retreat. The perfect yard for conviviality? Exactly 10.6 feet deep.

Then there was the issue of social scale. Rather than bumping into any one of three hundred or so strangers each day in the tower elevator, McDowell experienced repeated contact with fewer than two dozen neighbors, making the social world of the garden more manageable, somewhat like a fareej, a domestic enclosure common in the Arab world that is big enough for several extended families. McDowell could remember the names of everyone who passed his door.

These new friendships are not trivial. Nine years on, McDowell babysits his neighbors’ kids and keeps spare keys for their doors. His fellow town house dwellers dominate the building’s management board. They vacation together. Where the tower pushes people apart, the town house courtyard draws them closer. He considers half of his twenty-two town house neighbors to be close friends.

“How many of them would you say you love?” I asked him the afternoon he showed me around. It was an intrusive question. He blushed, but counted on his fingers. “Love, like they were my family? Six.” This is a stunning figure, given the shrinkage that most people report in their social networks these past twenty years. “And we love our home. All of us.”

Excerpted from Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery, published in November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Charles Montgomery. All rights reserved.

About the author

Charles Montgomery is an award-winning author. He also creates experimental public programs where people use their own cities as laboratories.