BUTTE, MT - Is Butte a happy city?

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That may seem like an obvious question to some and a challenging question for others. How does someone even begin to come up with an answer to that question? One may think it's as easy as examining your own emotions about the city and going from there. That's logical and provides a decent basis, but does it actually cover the entirety of the implications brought up by "happy city"? What even is a "happy city"?

It's not a trick question. Understanding the core concept of a "happy city" is as easy as it sounds. A "happy city" is a city that its residents generally feel happy to live in and want to raise a family in. However, the actual methodology to measure a happy city is a little more difficult and goes beyond simply asking everyone, "Do you feel happy living in Butte?" A true happy city features elements, values, and factors that are represented in the city's architecture, infrastructure, and amenities, almost making the city "happy" on its own accord rather than its status reflected by its citizens.

On that note, I wanted to investigate the city of Butte to determine (as closely as I can with available resources) just how "happy" our city is. I must say that although you may think you know the answer, I'm sure the results may surprise you as they did me.

Utilizing "Happy City" by Charles Montgomery

This whole idea of a "happy city" and comparing it to Butte came from my recollection of an architecture class I took years ago where we read Happy City by Charles Montgomery. We compared it to our town at that time, which really opened up some insights into what could be done to improve the city itself while appreciating the city we already had. If you haven't read it, Happy City delves into the intricate relationship between urban design and human happiness, while offering a blueprint for creating a city that promotes well-being. His investigation into what makes a city "happy" is the basis for how I investigated Butte's "happy city" potential.

Social Connection and the Urban Layout

Let's start off with one of the most historically-reliable measurements: the bridge between social connection and the urban layout. To put that into a question: How does Butte's infrastructure and urban design foster social interaction?

In the book, Montgomery highlights the importance of designing cities that help develop social interactions naturally. What are some features he's talking about? Think public squares, parks, and more pedestrian-friendly streets, all of which encourage residents to meet and engage with one another. Also, more walkability—meaning the amount of sidewalks and trails within the city for residents to walk along—provides residents with social opportunities and happiness through simple exercise.

A taste of the trails around Butte. Credit: Devon Brosnan
A taste of the trails around Butte. Credit: Devon Brosnan

Let's return to that question above: does Butte have ample opportunities for social connectivity through its design? Yes and no. For starters, the Uptown and lower districts of Butte certainly provide sidewalks for residents to enjoy, virtually around every corner. Though Uptown has way fewer than its lower-region counterparts, the city has over 29 parks, making it "happy" in terms of walkability and park recreation—despite the lack of walkability between the two regions. However, the quality and content of these parks could be improved to foster more social connections, such as nicer grass, more courts and fields for sports, and more shaded areas.

Looking at Butte's Uptown, the usual hub for larger in-city events, social interaction potential is brought to its peak. The district’s walkable streets, local shops, and cultural landmarks enhance the "happy city" score by bringing plenty of opportunities for residents to bump into each other, have a chat, catch up, or even meet someone new—especially when events like the Uptown farmer's market are happening. The district's less difficult streets (in terms of bearing directional understanding, not physical ease) also bring happiness through its easy-to-maneuver urban design.

However, there are some factors that hold back the city's "happy city" rating. The biggest and most obvious? Crime. Though the streets are generally safe from violent crimes, property crime still reigns here in Butte, along with a very evident drug abuse problem. These translate to streets where its citizens feel unsure to walk on since their safety is questioned by the few who are—to put it politely—wildcards.

Mobility and Transportation

In Happy City, Montgomery emphasizes the emotional impact of how we move through urban spaces. He advocates for a shift from a car-dominated infrastructure to one that supports walking, cycling, and public transportation. The book showcases the importance of this by highlighting how commuting via an isolated vehicle makes people generally unhappy and numb. How is the mobility in our city?

All in all, it could be worse. Many features are great, though some are nullified by a lack of care from authorities—evident in design issues and the quality of streets.

Butte's reliance on cars is typical of many American cities, but it also offers a bus system that could be expanded and made more user-friendly. Improving bus routes and schedules, adding more bike lanes, and investing in street safety (such as filling potholes and clearer stop signs) can contribute significantly to Butte’s happiness rating. As it stands now, Butte definitely has most of its citizens driving from place to place, but not nearly as much as a more spread-out city such as Billings or Missoula. Personally, I see many people parking and walking around Uptown rather than driving from place to place.

Design to Prevent Crime

Montgomery's concept of urban safety extends beyond reducing crime; it includes creating environments where people feel secure and comfortable. This involves good lighting, active streetscapes, and maintaining public spaces. Montgomery even mentions the use of "hostile" architecture—architecture that is designed to prevent people from doing things the city authorities might find undesirable—in major cities, though he also condemns its use.

An example of "hostile architecture." Credit: Dioniso Punk/Facebook
An example of "hostile architecture." Credit: Dioniso Punk/Facebook

Butte's crime prevention through urban design is...an afterthought to say the least. However, Butte’s efforts to revitalize its Uptown area by improving building facades and enhancing street lighting show that there is some thought being put in towards these ideas. Further investment in public amenities and community policing can help make all residents feel safer and more connected. Though not through hostile architecture...


Retrofitting Existing Structures

Alright, Butte: here's one we can all agree on. It's no secret that Butte is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in the Western States. Though Butte has a tricky and long history with its historic buildings, some people—such as Cameron, who is working on transforming the Old St. James Hospital—are working to save Butte's old buildings and turn them into something we can all benefit from.

A construction worker focuses on restoring hallway walls in Old St. James Hospital. Credit: Devon Brosnan
A construction worker focuses on restoring hallway walls in Old St. James Hospital. Credit: Devon Brosnan

Montgomery suggests that retrofitting existing urban structures to meet new needs is crucial for developing happier cities. That means that Butte’s historic buildings and neighborhoods offer a unique charm and opportunity for its citizens to live and immerse themselves in Butte's beloved history. Also, by adopting Montgomery’s presented strategies, Butte can invest in adaptive reuse projects that preserve its historical character while making spaces more functional for current and future needs. This could include converting old industrial sites into mixed-use developments or community centers, such as what the Butte Rescue Mission is doing with its old warehouse conversion project.

So, is Butte a Happy City?

Utilizing the principles presented in Happy City reveals the massive potential Butte has through its pre-existing design elements, such as plentiful sidewalks, miles of parks and trails, and its thriving community scene. Butte, as is in this moment, is "happy", though just as there are many elements that elevate its potential, there are also many elements that hold the city back.

By enhancing social spaces, improving transportation options, ensuring safety (looking at you, city government), and continuing to invest in and retrofitting existing structures, Butte can leverage its historical assets and natural beauty to become a model of urban happiness. While the transformation won’t happen overnight, small, strategic changes inspired by Montgomery’s insights can set the stage for a brighter, more connected future for Butte’s residents.

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