"Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design" by Charles Montgomery is the theoretical exploration of what it would mean to create an environmentally-friendly, socially just, aesthetically pleasing, and efficient city. Charles Montgomery is an award-winning author and activist who is known for exploring the intersections between urban planning, psychology, culture, and history. "Happy City" opens in Bogota, Columbia, where we meet Enrique Peñalosa, whom Montgomery dubs “The Mayor of Happy.” And I say “we meet” Peñalosa, because that is exactly how it feels. Montgomery employs the use of “we” throughout the book to draw the reader into his narrative. While he learns about Peñalosa’s radical changes to Bogota, we are there with him. And by the end of his introduction, we are still with him as he asks the following: “If a poor and broken city such as Bogota can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely its possible… wealthy places.” The remainder of the book is divided into two main sections and uses a similar style, mixing scientific studies with his own experiences and the experiences of those he has interviewed.
The first section of the book takes the reader from early Greek and Roman cities to today’s American and Canadian counterparts, giving a crash course in notable figures along the way, from Jeremy Bentham to Le Corbusier. It then sets up a list of components necessary for happiness that is used to frame the rest of the book. The method is effective, addressing the ambiguity of a term like “happiness” while still providing criteria for evaluating his claims.
The first portion of the book then examines the ways in which cities have failed to create this “happiness recipe.” While those with urban planning or architectural backgrounds are likely already aware of many of the issues the author discusses, such as urban sprawl, car-culture, and restrictive zoning, the information provides a clear and well-written base of information for those new to the material. One of the strengths of this section and the book as a whole is its ability to turn commonly assumed notions on their heads using information gleaned from studies. This information may be new even to those involved in the planning sector. For example, Montgomery iterates that while most people believe that the safest designs for roads are wide, smooth stretches that separate cars from people, these very roads are more dangerous than their narrow counterparts. He explains that “since...newer, wider residential streets encourage faster driving, they are associated with four times as many pedestrian deaths as narrower, older streets."
The second portion of the book shows how people’s desire for happiness can help create cities that are greener, fairer, prettier, richer, and healthier. As he puts it, “the sustainable city has got to promise more happiness than the status quo. It has got to be healthier, higher in status, more fun, and more resilient than the dispersed city … It has got to be a city of hedonic satisfaction, of distilled joys that do not cost the world … the world-saving city must embody lessons from behavioral economics to ensure that the good choice and the happy choice can be the same.”
The rest of the book discusses the ways in which cities can make changes to move towards this goal. Again, many of his suggestions will not be new to those in Montgomery’s field. He argues for incorporating nature into cities and for mixed-use designs that allow people “regular opportunities for brief, easy contact.” Furthermore, he stresses that people will adapt their behavior to suit their built environment. Things happen in cities because they are “allowed to happen.”
While the information itself may seem logical to planners, the book’s anecdotes and examples bring the facts to life. Street vendors come to an area by a subway stop in Mexico City because they are permitted to be there. Citizens of Copenhagen drink on terraces in the middle of winter because on a car-less street, the terraces can exist year-round. It is these anecdotes that ultimately make the book not only informative but an interesting read. One cannot help but feel connected to Randy, Kim, Leonard and the host of others that Montgomery interviews throughout the book. Their hopes and fears and complicated relationships with their surroundings are laid out before us on the page. It is for this, in addition to its thorough research, that the book proves a worthwhile read. It is full of interesting nuggets - historical and psychological information thrown together with the everyday. And above all, it is written with the sort of heartfelt delivery that makes you truly believe that achieving the “happy city” is not impossible. We have to be willing to step away from sprawl and create it, bit-by-bit.
How do cities play a role in individual and collective happiness? Do you think that the best way to make cities more sustainable is to appeal to people’s happiness? What are the most effective ways cities could begin applying some of these ideas to their existing landscapes? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
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