Sunday, February 3, 2019

Happy City

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design
© 2013 Charles Montgomery
368 pages

City air makes one free, but -- happy? Throughout the 20th century, Americans fled the urban centers seeking Arcadian bliss. They didn’t find it, and despite an abundance of material wealth the nation continues to writhe in anxiety.  We’re addicted to medication, legal or otherwise;  many live lives of quiet desperation, and others lash out violently in scenes that horrify the imagination.  The suburban experiment was a failure from the start, says Charles Montgomery, because we were made for one another. In leaving the cities to decay, we uprooted ourselves from the social fabric which sustains us. It doesn’t have to be this way; we can come home to the village, even to the city. We can restore our cities to the picture of health, and ourselves in the bargain. Montgomery’s Happy City is a masterful work,  bringing together Greek philosophy, urban economics, and social commentary.

Why care about the city? Globally, the human race is half-urbanized, using a loose definition for urban that includes suburban sprawl. The semi-urban forms we choose to live in can either contribute  to our well-being by meeting our needs, or they can serve to frustrate us. Montgomery opens  with a review of what constitutes 'happiness'  and its connection to the urban form. There are sound objective reasons for wanting to make the setting of most human lives 'better';  traditionally-planned cities are more economically productive and allow for both greener and healthier lives by making it easy for people to walk or bike to work, for instance. Montgomery touches on these arguments, but he's not just writing to city planners or mayors who hold the fate of others in their hands. He writes to appeal to the common citizen, someone less interested in return-on-investment breakdowns and more concerned with the quality of everyday life.  Being able to walk to work or shops is good for our bones and good for the air, but it's also good for our spirits; we're not dependent on a car, we're out in the fresh air, we're seeing and being seen.  There are material pleasures to consider, of course; the concentration of diverse restaurants and stores in dense neighborhoods, and the bliss of pedaling down to the library through leafy streets , but there is more to the human experience than simple sensuality...even though there's nothing like a well-placed park to relax stressed brains.

We are political creatures, wrote Aristotle, not because we like to vote and share "Hooray For Our Side" memes on Facebook, but because people like other people. We like to watch people; we like to bump into them   We don't like to be crowded against people, however; there are tricky dynamics at work that the design of cities and the buildings within have to account for. There's a big difference, for instance, between apartment buildings that are designed around impersonal corridors, and those designed around suites that allow people to occupy a goldilocks area between the private and public realms. The front porch of southern homes in the US had the same effect in detached housing, allowing just the right amount of engagement and privacy. Montgomery is sneaky, exposing readers to brief chats about building codes  and housing policy while offering touching stories about people coming together to make their lives together.  In one neighborhood, for instance, residents turned an intersection into a public square by painting it and filling it with places to sit and talk.  They did this over the protests of the municipal government, which had steadily ignored residents' request for traffic-calming measures at that intersection.  A happy city is one where people can be agents in their own lives. Montgomery also stresses that a happy city is one that works for everyone, where even the poor and marginalized can feel like members of the city, and not just clients of its social services office. He goes into many examples of how even something mundane like traffic infrastructure can frustrate or quicken the ability of a person to thrive.  

Happy City is a supremely thoughtful book on what makes happy, and why urban design is important  in cultivate it.  America is plainly in a bad way judging by the politicians we favor with success.  Maybe we don't know what we want -- from one another, from the places we live. I think Happy City can help with directions. When I first heard someone speak on the importance of the urban form to human flourishing, I was blown away by the insight -- and that came from a grating critic. Montgomery is far more amiable, though not less impassioned.  The book itself offered a look at places that were healthy and growing more so, and both the information it provides and the examples it shows are tremendously encouraging.  

As a final note, this review has been a work in progress since  2015, and the state of it above is more or less the state it's been in since then. I've read the book twice since then, and re-skimmed it a few times more, and every time I just can't hit the button.  Maybe I just don't want to stop thinking about the book? At any rate, it's one of my very favorites. 

Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam
The Great Good Place, Roy Oldenburg, both on the human need for connection and 'place'.
The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler, a history of suburban malaise
Walkable CityPedaling Revolution, and Straphanger 
It's a Sprawl World After All, Douglas Morris, focusing on sprawl's impact on the human need for community.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs; Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn; and Suburban Nation, Andreas Duany


  1. back in the 6th grade, i think it was, the teacher tried to get us interested in the roles of minorities and majorities and what the terms really implied... i've thought about that for years in combination with decision analysis and social imperatives... it seems like majority figures ignore the important stuff, but the minorities only act for their won interests... and any sort of reasonable decision making process inevitably involves conflict between the two... i don't know any answers to this; maybe Montgomery does?

  2. We spend so much time in cities they REALLY should be well designed! In fact all urban areas or whatever size should be designed to maximise its citizens well-being. If only, eh!


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