Happy City by Charles Montgomery

Happy City is a non-fiction book about the ways cities can make their residents happy. In the pursuit of this goal, Charles Montgomery explores various examples of cities that both do and don’t create health and happiness for the people who inhabit them.

The book begins with an example of a “Happy City”, Bogotá, Columbia, and a whimsical story about the everyday life of Enrique Peñalosa, the man largely credited with bringing it from a crime filled, unhealthy, and unhappy place into a city that residents are proud of. Throughout the book, Bogotá’s transformation is frequently used as an example of what needs to be done to make people happier and healthier. Atlanta Georgia, USA (among others) is used to demonstrate what not to do.

The main argument is that a city should serve its residents. It should provide them with a community, make it easy to have more or less social interaction as they choose, and provide easy access to necessities and niceties. The book attacks “sprawl”, the urban state that actively opposes these goals, and argues that urban sprawl is an artificial state brought about by failed modernist ideas and lobbying by automobile manufacturers and oil companies.

Happy City articulated feelings about cities that I have had for some time. It focuses on the changes needed in North American cities. Australian cities suffer from many of the same issues and would benefit from many of the same solutions.

Recently I took a trip to Perth in Western Australia. I felt very real anger at the state of Perth. Before we went, my wife and I discussed whether or not we should hire a car while there. I believed we would be fine without one, she thought we should hire one. She was right. Perth is so utterly dependent on cars that it is impossible to get around without one. One day I thought I would take a trip to a local store to have a look around only to find that Perth lacks the concept of a local store. There is no option but to get in a car and drive on many lane highways to a large, soulless shopping centre. The city is so sprawled out and auto-dependent that tow trucks park under highway exits, safe in the knowledge that there will be an accident frequently enough to support their business. How can people accept this as a normal state of affairs and do nothing about it?

As Charles Montgomery points out, reliance on cars makes people miserable and sick. Losing hours of your day, sitting sedately in a steel box hating other people in other steel boxes is bad for both mental and physical health.

Thankfully, Happy City also shows examples of solutions. The most frequent exemplar cities are cities in the Netherlands and Vancouver. While the problems with cities suggested in the book were largely things I already agreed with (presented articulately, passionately, and scientifically) the solutions were new to me and made me feel less frustrated and more hopeful.

Montgomery points out that cities should provide citizens with easy access to the things they need and the things they want. People need small local shops, parks and utilities not large centres separated by road. They should have a choice in what transport they take and should not be treated as second class just for choosing something other than a car. To make these changes, Western cities need to strip away the dense layers of zoning laws and restrictions that forcefully perpetuate the current suburban sprawl in favour of healthy, efficient, happiness bringing living.

One particularly powerful point that was entirely novel to me was the concept of semi-private space. In dense residential apartment buildings, there is only private space and public space. You are in an entirely private space inside your home but as soon as you step out into the corridor, you are confronted with close, intimate cohabitation with strangers or mild acquaintances. Free-standing homes in the suburbs have the opposite problem; suburb dwellers have no connection with their neighbours. They leave in the morning in their car and arrive home in the evening in it, never interacting with their local world. Happy City points out that to be happy, people need to be able to interact with varying levels of intimacy and they need to be in control of this. Shared courtyards, parks, and public streets without cars are perfect for this sort of semi-public interaction. It brings happiness to be around strangers who you can talk to if you want, but you don’t feel compelled to.

Through this book (and my trip to Perth) I have become much more grateful for my own city, Adelaide. While it is nowhere near as friendly to its inhabitants as some European cities, it is fantastic compared to other Australian cities. Every day I ride my bike to work via bike paths, very rarely needing to ride on a shared road. There are three public parks within easy walking distance of my home and everywhere I go, I am surrounded by trees and nature; looking out my apartment window, I can see as many trees as I can rooftops. While I did, and still do, get frustrated with the priority given to automobiles, I now understand that things could be a lot worse.

On Charles Montgomery’s writing style: I found it very compelling, well researched and powerful. Two minor annoyances momentarily took me out of the flow at times. Footnotes are very heavily used. They would frequently flow across pages and some pages had more footnotes that body text. The footnotes were often interesting and useful examples and studies, I feel most of them could have been part of the body text. Also, several words were noticeably over-used, for example: “salient”.

Happy City is an important book. It challenges widely held beliefs and attacks a harmful established order. If everyone took the time to think about the way they live more and were more actively involved in their cities, we would live a lot more sustainably and successfully. I will make some changes to my life thanks to the book: I hope to be more attentive to local politics, it will not do to let the same people keep making decisions about the neighbourhoods I live in, if we continue down that path, we will end up like Perth. I recommend Happy City to everyone.