Salvation in the City

Salvation in the City

One man finds that ditching suburbia for urban density meant he could work less, drop the gym membership, throw a few parties, and start a family. Oh, and he also cut his carbon footprint. Dramatically.

A decade ago Conrad Schmidt lived unremarkably. The South African expatriate drove his Jeep YJ to work every weekday morning in the suburbs of his adopted city of Vancouver. That took an hour. He spent most of his day in front of a computer. At the end of his workday Schmidt drove home again. Another hour. Sometimes, when traffic got really bad, he would grip the steering wheel tightly and fight the overwhelming urge to scream. But drive he did, year after year, for the sake of that job. A layer of fat spread across his stomach and buttocks. Sometimes he would drive to a gym to work off the pounds and the frustration. Most days he just had no time for that.

Schmidt survived until, at the age of 34, he realized that his decision to fit his days to the demands of sprawl shaped most everything about him. It dictated how he got around, how much stuff he bought, the shape of his body, even the amount of carbon dioxide he pushed into the atmosphere. Carbon—that was the one that stung him. He had studied the science, and he couldn’t stand the thought that he was helping fuel the climate crisis. One day he’d have kids. He felt like he was stealing from them.

Schmidt reengineered his life in stages. First he followed his fancy to a neighborhood with a reputation for street culture, a place where he could walk to buy his milk and newspaper, and enjoy the journey, to boot. He may not have considered the dynamics of population density, average lot size, or zoning regulations when he moved. He did not realize that he was enjoying the benefits of a century-old calculus, or that a long-gone streetcar line had shaped his new neighborhood. He knew only that the place felt good. It felt easy.

The next step: One day Schmidt left his car at home. He walked to the SkyTrain, the elevated rapid transit line that crossed Commercial Drive a few blocks from his apartment. After 20 minutes he stepped off the train and made another life-changing decision. He did not wait for a bus. He took a deep breath and started to run. He ran all the way to work. When he got there, Schmidt could not stop laughing. He felt like a hero. He felt free. He decided to run to work again the next day.

After a few of these trips Schmidt realized that he didn’t need his Jeep anymore, so he sold it. Now he had a few hundred extra dollars in his pocket every month. This emboldened him. One workday morning, still feeling his runner’s high, Schmidt walked into his boss’s office.

“I’d rather not come in on Fridays,” he said.

“Fine,” replied his boss. “But I will have to cut your salary by 20 percent.”

“Fine,” said Schmidt.

It really was fine. With no car, Schmidt didn’t need the money.

He got stronger every day, and he felt younger. He gave up his trips to the gym—why bother with a treadmill when your commute is your workout? He walked up and down the Drive, and he made friends there. They were a lot like him. Many of them had traded their life in dispersal for more time.

When the economy tanked, Schmidt didn’t feel the pain. He didn’t have a big house to lose. He had already sold his home and squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment along with a woman he had met in the neighborhood. After their first baby arrived, they moved to a humble bungalow nearby. These places weren’t fancy, but his life on the Drive was rich with experiences.

It dawned on Schmidt that the less money he made, the better his life was becoming. He had time to pursue the dreams he had never managed to get around to in his old life. For one thing, he began staging costume parties where hundreds of his neighbors would come and dance. He started a new political party based in part on the economics of his own experience, and he called it, naturally, the Work Less Party.

Conrad Schmidt’s new life did not come for free. He earned it by trading away stuff as well as square footage.

It was a deliberate journey. But here is the thing: the geometry of the neighborhood set the stage for that new life.

The density and mix of buildings and jobs, the scale of streets and parks, the frequency of buses, the speed of roads, and the relationship of the Drive to the rest of the city, especially the nearby downtown, constituted a life-shaping system. That system did not just make his days easier, healthier, more connected. It did not just make Schmidt stronger and give him more control over his days. It shrank his footprint on the city, and on the earth. At the same time, by consciously embracing a local life on the Drive, Schmidt gave right back to it. He gave the neighborhood his money, his time, and, it would not be an exaggeration to add, his love. In so doing, he made it stronger. He became a part of it.

Some people arrive in the happy city by accident. Some seek it in desperation. Some build it. Some fight for it. Some, like Conrad Schmidt, experience a conversion moment. They realize that their place in the city, and the ways in which they move, have tremendous power to shape their own lives, the life of their city, and the future of their world. They realize that the happy city, the low carbon city, and the city that will save us are the same place, and that they have the wherewithal to create it.

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 choose how and where to live. 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.

Excerpted from Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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