Review of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Mongomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, explores how decades of urban design are destructive to human happiness, human life, and the life of the planet itself. He tours the world — focused mostly on Vancouver, Portland, Bogotá, Atlanta, and Hong Kong — to understand the different choices that urban designers historically adopted and why communities are railing against those decisions, now.

The book represents a tour de force, insofar as it carefully and clearly explains that urban sprawl — which presumed that we would all have cars and that we all wanted or needed isolated homes — is incredibly harmful. The focus of the book is, really, on how designing for cars leads to designing for things instead of people, and how efforts to facilitate car traffic has been antithetical to human life and flourishing. His call for happy cities really constitutes calls to, first and foremost, invest in urbanization and densification. Common social utilities, like transit and parks and community spaces, are essential for cities to become happy because these utilities both reduce commutes, increase socialization, and the presence of nature relieves the human mind of urban stresses.

While the book is rife with proposals for how to make things better, Montgomery doesn’t go so far as to argue that such changes are easy or that they can be universally applied everywhere. The infrastructure that exists, now, cannot simply be torn up and replaced. As a result he identifies practical ways that even suburban areas can reinvigorate their community spaces: key, in almost all cases, are finding ways to facilitate human contact by way of re-thinking the structures of urban design itself. These changes depend not only on — indeed, they may barely depend at all upon! — city planners and, instead, demand that citizens advocate for their own interests. Such advocacy needn’t entail using the language of architects and urban designers and can, instead, focus on words or themes such as ‘community’ or ‘safe for children to bike’ or ‘closer to community resources’ or ‘slower streets’ or ‘more green space’. After robustly, and regularly, issuing such calls then the landscape may begin to change to facilitate both human happiness and smaller environmental food prints.

If there is a flaw to this book, it is that many of the examples presume that small scale experiments necessarily are scalable to broad communities. I don’t know that these examples do not scale but, because of the relatively small sample-set and regularity at which Montgomery leverages them, it’s not clear how common or effective the interventions he proposes genuinely are. Nevertheless, this is a though-provoking books that challenges the reader to reflect on how cities are, and should be, built to facilitate and enable the citizens who reside within and beyond their boundaries.

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