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.


We are now learning that the effect of density is nuanced. For one thing, wealthier people do better in apartment towers than poor people. Not only do they have the money to pay for concierges, maintenance, gardening, decoration, and child care, but, having chosen their residences, they tend to attach greater status to them. Home feels better when it carries a different message about who you are. (A building’s status can be altered without any physical change at all. When they were sold on the open market, once-despised social housing blocks in central London became objects of desire for middle-class buyers who fetishizes their retro modernism.)

  • Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

We need the nourishing, helping warmth of other people, but we also need the healing touch of nature. We need to connect, but we also need to retreat. We benefit from the conveniences of proximity, but these conveniences can come with he price of overstimulation and crowding. We will not solve the conundrum of sustainable city living unless we understand these contradictory forces and resolve the tension between them. How much space, privacy, and distance from other people do we need? How much nature do we need? Are there designs that combine the benefits of dispersal with the dividends of proximity?

  • Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Apple, Handoff, and the Apple Ecosystem

I listen to a lot of podcasts and music throughout the day. It drives me nuts that there isn’t a consistent and reliable way to start listening to something on my Apple TV when having breakfast, shift to my iPhone while heading out to walk to a coffee shop, shift to listening on my iPad while reading/dealing with email, back to my iPhone for a walk to my office, and then finish listening to a playlist of my Mac without having to open the music app on each device, each time, and navigate to my place in a given playlist and start listening. Yes this is very much a first world problem but it’s the precise kind of problem that Apple’s famed integration is supposed to solve for me!


… the meeting place, the agora, the village square are not trivial. They are not civic decoration or merely recreational. The life of a community is incomplete without them, just as the life of the individual is weaker and sicker without face-to-face encounters with other people.

  • Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

The Roundup for December 1-23, 2018 Edition

(Choices by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.

Inspiring Quotation

“The Heart that gives, gathers.”

  • Tao Te Ching

Great Photography Shots

I really appreciated the simplicity of the smartphone shots, below, which were initially curated by Mobiography. I think it’s so important that to focus on the images that are being produced, as opposed to what produced them, to realize that almost all cameras are amply sufficient to get aesthetically pleasing images these days.

(‘Imagine a lonesome Pink balloon in a Pink room with no one to cheer up‘ by @arashrimus)
(‘Untitled‘ by @lucdigital)
(‘City boii‘ by

Music I’m Digging

  • Bush – Deconstructed // I’ve been listening to Bush since they were Bush X. While I’ve never been a fan of all of their songs, Deconstructed manages to collect most of my favourite ones and remix them in particularly enjoyable ways. The album maintains the grittiness of the original tracks while mixing them with a healthy dose of electronica, thus transforming the tracks into something entirely new and different.
  • Ta-Ku – 50 Days For Dilla, Vol. 1 and Ta-Ku – 25 Nights for Nujabes // Both albums have a kind of trip-hop vibe and are almost entirely instrumental. I’ve been finding them to be nice background music while cooking, reading, or doing light writing. They’re definitely pretty solid chill out albums.
  • Sean Paul – Mad Love: The Prequel // I’m not typically a fan of Sean Paul, but any number of tracks on this album are great to listen to while going on a long walk, long bike, or other activity where you just want a fun beat to your step.

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Wolverine: The Long Night // This twelve episode drama takes us to Alaska, where the FBI has come looking into whether Logan is hiding out in the area while also trying to solve the mysteries of a secret cult, a well established drug trade, magical ley lines, and a ‘protective’ town father. It’s the one podcast I’ve listened to over the past few weeks that gripped me and had me listen to almost all of it in a single, long, listen.

Good Reads

  • Inside Chronicle, Alphabet’s cybersecurity moonshot // Engadget’s long-form article does a really good job in working through the origins, and intentions, behind Alphabet’s newest threat-intelligence organization. The decision to leverage Google’s core strengths — search and machine learning — and then use them to track or identify threats in smaller organizations’ systems and networks seems like it could work, especially when Virus Total data can be used as a basis for teaching machines. Like all Alphabet/former X projects, however, it remains debatable whether the new organization will truly bloom or wither on the vine like some of Alphabet’s other moonshot projects.
  • Coffee roasting acoustics // This is, quite simply, an awesome paper that immediately appealed to me as a coffee nerd. The crux of the paper: ”The sounds of first crack are qualitatively similar to the sound of popcorn popping while second crack sounds more like the breakfast cereal Rice Krispies® in milk. Additional qualitative audible differences between first and second crack are: first crack is louder, first crack is lower in frequency, and individual second cracks occur more frequently within the chorus than first cracks. The purpose of the present work is to quantify these effects as a preliminary step toward the development of an automated acoustical roast monitoring technique.”
  • The Hidden Struggle to Save the Coffee Industry From Disaster // Coffee is in danger: it lacks significant genetic diversity and, as such, is threatened by increasing prevalence of rust leaf. Gunn’s article examines how geneticists are trying to diversity coffee trees’ DNA so that the trees adopt more resilient properties in the face of a changing climate. Any of their results are going to have to wait until 2025, however, which raises the question of whether a solution will be found in time to save/maintain/expand existing coffee plantations.
  • The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot // I learned so much about the Moka Coffee Pot in this article! Both in terms of the history of espresso and using steam in the brewing of coffee, as well as that the Moka Pot has serious design chops behind its creation. It’s painful to read, however, that coffee pods are significantly responsible for the threats facing Bialetti, especially given how the relatively affordable Moka Pot means that anyone can potentially create a nice cup of coffee compared to the travesties that emerge from the pod-based coffee systems.
  • Illusion of control: Why the world is full of buttons that don’t work // A combination of lack of repairs and belief that automated systems are safer have combined to mean that the beg buttons — those we press to get the walk signal to appear more quickly — just don’t do anything. Worse, the properties of these buttons meant to provide assistance to those hard of hearing don’t really function well because they’re largely inaudible. But the sense of pressing a button, in and of itself, is comforting and makes us less likely to just walk across a line of traffic.
  • The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations // The efforts to both try to mitigate suicides, while also drive youth from stations and prevent loitering, is pretty impressive. As is the rationale for different 7-second jingles in each station that indicate the closing of a door. Japan’s obsession with building things to perfectly suit the challenges at hand remain incredibly impressive.
  • Flying in airplanes exposes people to more radiation than standing next to a nuclear reactor — here’s why // As someone who probably flies too often I’m always worried about things like radiation exposure. This article from Business Insider does a good job in explaining the actual radiological dangers linked with air travel, though the only way to really avoid the harms is to not fly in the first place…
  • Inside China’s audacious global propaganda campaign // This longform article by the Guardian details how the Chinese government has been actively attempting to shape the world’s perception of the country’s and government’s ambitions, rationales, and motivations by way of taking control of the providers of information. From training journalists around the world to acquiring the media themselves, China is actively involved in a global information campaign that is different from any other type of information campaign in the world.
  • excerpts from my Sent Folder: to someone who wants to be a writer // I really like a lot of the editing advice here. It’s blunt and to the point and, if followed, will help someone start writing for the ‘right’ reasons and with an appropriate level of humbleness.
  • The Physical and Spiritual Art of Capoeira // I’d never come across a popular article that speaks to the totality of a capoeira practice. Some of it is, in hindsight, unsurprising: I don’t know of any martial art format that isn’t beautiful, deadly, and philosophical. What was particularly noteworthy was how capoeira is seen as linked with resistance and politics; though perhaps true of certain martial arts, it’s certainly not generally case and, as such, seems to make capoeira relatively novel.

Cool Things

The Roundup for November 19-30, 2018 Edition

Explore by Christopher Parsons

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee, make a tea, or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.

Inspiring Quotation

Hope requires action.

  • Barrack Obama

Great Photography Shots

Ugur Galenkus’ work is not easy to look at, but constitutes an important artistic intervention by juxtaposing the lives of those in war torn parts of the world with those in the West.

Music I’m Digging

  • 2018 – Tracks I Liked in November // A new addition to my music lists, I’m starting to pull together the different tracks that I liked in a given month. This month sees some tracks from 2018 but just as many from earlier in the decade. It’s a diverse collection of pop, R&B, rap, and alternative, and electronic, with a bit of orchestral thrown in here and there.
  • American Gods (Original Series Soundtrack) // Having just watched the first season of the show — which was excellent! — I had to get and listen to the soundtrack. It’s got an eerie mix of jazz, electronica, and classical undertones. While merging all three genres is somewhat novel it works incredibly well throughout the album and stands up well without needing the show to support the music.
  • Jean-Michel Blais – Il (Deluxe) // Blais plays classical piano, and the album he’s created is absolutely beautiful. The title track of the albums, il, is a treat to listen to as he flies over the keys to create a truly spellbinding moment.
  • Lavnia Meijer – Glass: Metamorphosis, The Hours // This is a really impressive set of classical music; I’ve listened to it throughout the past couple weeks when passing through the city so as to just reflect on what is near and far, in the past and in the future.
  • If you like these albums then you should follow me on Apple Music!

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Heavyweight – Gregor // I hadn’t heard of Heavyweight until last week. It’s a curious concept: the host attempts to bring a resolution to a personal conflict of some sort between two people. In this episode it is between Gregor — a guy who feels like his life has passed him by — and Moby, to whom Gregor has loaned a CD box set in the 90s. Moby sampled from the disks and created some of his most iconic breakout hits but never returned the CDs nor really spoke to Gregor again. This episode resolves some of that historical conflict between the two men.
  • The House – Midweek pod: Millennials’ money habits // In this episode of The House the highlight exploration is of a study into the actual financial status and security of millennials in Canada. The assertion is that most millennials are in about the same status or better than their parents. The assessment seems to pass over what generates anxiety: for those living in Canada’s big cities, debt from student loans are slowing progress into home ownership while home prices skyrocket and (correspondingly) renters are always in a situation of being forced from their homes, attitudes of employers means that it’s hard to trust that you’re going to have a long-term job which impacts an ability to engage in long-term fiscal planning, and there are lingering concerns amongst some millennials about the status of their parents and what will happen when they retire with limited savings. Moreover, the analysis is based on millennial perceptions around the country: the status of those in the big cities is very different from those in other parts of the country, which raises the question of whether such cross-cutting analyses that arrive at holistic ‘understandings’ for the entire country are really fitting given the significant economic and social variation across the entirety of Canada.
  • The Sporkful – Carla Hall Isn’t Going Back To The Frozen Food Section // I remember Carla from when she was on Top Chef and was the ‘quirky’ one; this episode rewrites much of that perception by extending the depth of her experiences before, during, and after the show. Throughout I was struck with how her joy is communicated in some of her stories about her youth, and also the struggle and pain that came from recognizing that for her entire life she had been struggling against the structures of racism and not really realized their presence. Her honesty and candour, along with the host’s probing questions, turned this into one of the best episodes of the show to date.
  • The Daily – The Human Toll of Instant Delivery // By investigating the conditions in major shipping warehouses it becomes apparent just how inhumanely people are being treated so that goods which are ordered online arrive quickly to doorsteps. That some warehouses push women to work to the point of miscarriage, and have broad-brush misogynistic policies, is repugnant and speaks to the absolute need for workers rights to be better protected. All people deserve respect and dignity in their workplaces, regardless of the type of work, and this episode shows how poorly some employers will treat their employees in the absence of strong, and well defended, labour laws.

Good Reads

  • What to do about the Olympus Problem // I’m not going to lie: I think all the camera nerds saying one camera type or another is ‘dead’ or ‘useless’ fails to recognize that the worst cameras today are better than those used by the greats of photography 10, 15, 30, or 40 years ago. That said, this is probably one of the better ways to think about how Olympus might diversify its camera line to make clear which cameras are for which group of consumers. In this way, what Rammell is proposing is less reforming the cameras themselves — though there is a little of that — and more how to reform the public relations of Olympus. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though if companies like Apple are any indication I don’t think we should expect brand clarity anytime soon.
  • Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe // In this long-form article, the New York Times’ Abrahm Lustgarten outlines how American efforts to adopt biofuels to combat climate change have, instead, promoted climate change. By converting palm oil into biofuels the forests and peatlands of Indonesia and Malaysia are being ‘converted’ into oil-palm tree groves that have their seeds converted into biofuels. The problem is that these old-growth forests and peatlands act as massive carbon sinks: by destroying them, often by burning away the peat, more carbon is being released into the atmosphere than any time in the past millennia. Once more, human hubris concerning our knowledge of the complex environment we exist within has led to poor policy choices, in an era when such choices move us ever closer to ecological crisis and collapse.
  • Heritage beyond a building’s walls // What was most striking about this editorial was how heritage can be preserved in a multitude of ways, such as creating museums of key elements of an older location or building, within the new building itself, or otherwise honouring or relocating materials from the heritage site and into the new site. But, also, that heritage extends beyond the physical space itself: it may also mean establishing affordable housing to continue to legacy of a boarding house, or otherwise support the community that was essential to why a heritage site possesses a heritage in the first place.
  • You Don’t Have to Be a Journalist to Want to Keep Chats Private // I really appreciated how this interview with the New York Times’ Kate Conger walks through her process: while she’s mindful of security and privacy she still needs to be very social in order to do her job. So the technologies she’s using reflect her current decisions around security, and they’re ones that she regularly evaluates. The interview both surfaces some tools that others might be curious in trying out while, simultaneously, making clear there is no perfect, and that perfect is the enemy of good enough.
  • Period-tracking apps are not for women // Vox’s deep-dive into the world of period-tracking apps reveals an ecosystem dominated by men, and wherein women’s bodies and data is used principally to collect personal information so as to sell ads and products. These aren’t apps to empower women but, instead, ignorant applications designed by men to spy on women and profit from the spying. They are, in effect, creeper apps.
  • Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight // This is a complex essay: it notes how those willing to entertain dialogue with fascists tend to be in positions of privilege, whereas those most targeted are most disinclined to engage in debate and instead actively work against fascism not with words but with actions. While perhaps the most dangerous thing that liberal democracies can be is tolerant to intolerance, the author’s disassociation of action and ideas seems ill-conceived. Fascism exists as an idea, an ideology, and as a set of practices. What is required to combat it is, similarly, an idea set and series of practices; some may be discursive in nature and others more tactile. But shunning a diversity of tactics seems to be alienating allies with different skills and fundamentally turns into an intolerance of parties who are actively working against fascism but using different tactical means.
  • What the UAE’s arrest of Matthew Hedges means for political science research in the Middle East // The threats facing academics studying politics are rising throughout the world, and perhaps nowhere as quickly as in the Middle East. While this article raises questions about the safety of conducting research in the Middle East it also raises questions about Western governments which condone the sale of surveillance technologies used to track and round up academics and activists, as well Western governments’ broader support for autocratic regimes. It’s not sufficient to just warn scholars: governments themselves need to re-engage more aggressively to advocate for human rights and democratic reforms around the world.

Cool Things