Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design


At cocktail parties, on the playground, and, much to my husband’s chagrin, in the bedroom, I cannot stop talking about Happy City. The book rivals Jeff Speck’s fabulous Walkable City in the wealth of information it provides regarding the history and future of cities, towns, and suburbs as livable places. Charles Montgomery’s take differs in that it pivots on the idea of happiness, using social science research to make recommendations for innovations that will ease stress and increase community.

Though Happy City tends to belabor points with excess verbiage, its pace is redeemed by a wealth of interesting content like the following:

Even the smallest of private cars takes up about 150 square feet of road space when standing still. That’s thirty times the space used by a person standing, and 7.5 times the space used by a person on a bicycle or on a bus. The numbers diverge exponentially as we start moving. Someone driving alone in a car moving at thirty miles per hour takes up twenty times as much space as someone riding on a bus at the same speed.

“How would we build differently,” Montgomery asks, “if we could chart the connection between the designs of our cities and the map of happiness?” He starts by establishing that “the greatest of human satisfaction lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people.” And yet, the proliferation of “sprawlscapes [in] modern North America”—characterized by cul de sacs and strip malls rather than dense neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential use—combined with the fact that many jobs still sit near urban centers, means people spend more and more time stuck in their cars and deprived of the opportunity for casual contact with neighbors and the feelings of belonging and trust such interactions produce.

The current landscape of our suburbs makes parents “sicker, fatter, more frustrated, socially isolated, and broke,” while simultaneously depriving children of the community, independence, and prosocial busyness that comes with walkability.

Meanwhile, those who reside in downtowns and neighborhoods close to them (dubbed “streetcar suburbs”) deal with commuters slicing through their world, making conversation-stopping noise, displacing public gathering spaces, “clogg[ing] the main streets and slow[ing public transportation].”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, until relatively recently, it wasn’t.

We got here, Montgomery says thanks to “the twentieth century’s dual urban legacy: First, the city had been gradually reoriented around private automobiles. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatized.” He looks at cities like Copenhagen that have made great strides (pun intended) toward improving walkability and concludes: “If a poor and broken city such as Bogota can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely it’s possible to apply happy city principles to the wounds of wealthy places.” After all, “Paris’s most glorious public gardens were built for the enjoyment of a ruling elite but now provide hedonic delights for all.”

Happy City includes a host of suggestions for reform, including “neighborhood upcycling” which entails making more room for “people of different incomes … and tolerance for proximity” in cities. When changes in zoning and building laws allow for conversion of garages to cottages and more: “Th[e] vast majority of … single-family lots in the city can legally include at least three households.” Streets can be “pedestrianized” to create public spaces, like when New York City closed Broadway to traffic near Times Square or a group of neighbors reclaimed an intersection now called Share-It Square in Portland, Oregon. “All the real estate now used to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles,” Montgomery points out, “is public, and it can be used any way we decide.”

Other “happy redesigns” include “bike lanes, traffic calming, good transit, and … bylaws that ensure vibrant commercial streets.” Innovations called “sprawl repair,” look at filling in those yawning Target parking lots and, “‘returning cities to a human scale.’” There are, Montgomery says, “a thousand ways to retrofit proximity and complexity into cities.”

We just have to resolve to do it.

“We have been seduced by the wrong technologies,” Montgomery concludes: “[T]he struggle for the happy city is going to be long and difficult. The broken city lives in the rituals and practices of planners, engineers, and developers. It lives in law and code, and in concrete and asphalt. It lives in our own habits, too.” But “[i]t is not too late to rebuild the balance of life in our neighborhoods and cities.”

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work has been published online by The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.


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