Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery’s Happy City is an attempt to understand the various forces at work in our built environments through one over-riding idea. And what a great and important idea it is: Happiness. After all isn’t that really the ultimate aim of all effort around urban change; the pursuit of greater Happiness for all?

In many ways the book can be seen as a extension of previous work that have all been trending in this direction by like Ed Glaeser’s analysis of the economics of cities in Triumph of the City, David Owen’s slamdunk on urban sustainability in Green Metropolis, and Walkable City, where Jeff Speck showed that in the end almost all urban benefits can be summed up by the degree to which a place is walkable.

The difference here is that Montgomery takes an even higher altitude view by viewing places, their histories and effects, though the lens of what is understood to produce happiness in people. To do this he analyses ideas about happiness from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, and applies them at detail to different living environments all over the world.

And the great news is that he find evidence from all sorts of places that very real improvements can be gained by simply changing our priorities in how we shape the built environment. He starts and ends with the man he calls the Mayor of Happy, Enrique Peñalosa, who revolutionised the quality of life for the citizens of Bogota, but he also seriously considers the views of those for the city is a hell that is only there to be escaped:

“The modern city is probably the most unlovely and artificial site this planet affords. The ultimate solution is to abandon it… We shall solve the City Problem by leaving the city.”

-Henry Ford 1922

An attitude that persists to this day not only in the minds of many denizens of that ubiquitous demi-monde that Ford’s industry did so much to invent, suburbia, but also in the escapist utopias of both back-to-the-land Greenies and armed-to-the-teeth Survivalists.

Perhaps for me the best chapter comes at the end of the book and is simply called: ‘Everything is Connected to Everything Else’. Which is summarised like this:

“In fact, just about every measure I’ve connected to happy urbanism also influences a city’s environmental footprint and, just as urgent, its economic and fiscal health. If we understand and act on this connectedness, we may just steer hundreds of cities off the course of crisis.” -p258

This interconnectedness means that positive change has a multiplier effect. The evidence is mounting for the effectiveness of the measures and priorities of what, for the want of the a better term, is know as New Urbanism, going way beyond their own area. In a kind of virtuous vortex it seems the every time any one New Urbanist measure is undertaken then the improvement ripple just keeps expanding. And when done quickly, consistently, and with vigour these changes can have hugely transformative effects. The changes Peñalosa enacted in just three years in Bogota, for example, not only improved the access of the people near the new busways and cycleways, but also increased school enrollments [by 30%], significantly improved conditions for drivers [despite taking money earmarked for new roads and spending it on transit and active modes], reduced crashes, injuries, and deaths, even the murder rate fell by half!, air quality of course improved, and real estate values picked up. The health of the citizens improved with all the new walking and cycling, and, crucially, just plain made people happier: “Twelve years ago 80% of us were completely pessimistic about our future. Now it’s the opposite. Most are now optimistic.”

This chapter also has my favourite sentence in the book: “There is no such thing as an externality.” This is an argument for breaking down the artificially siloed thinking of the modernist era. Transport planners and traffic engineers, for example, must not be allowed to only consider the outcomes of their work within narrow confines of ‘level of service’ or ‘travel times’ but also must include all the other factors that they influence and that are too easily dismissed with the idea that they are mere ‘externalities’. Nothing is external.

The culmination of this literature on urban life means that we now know how to improve the lives of millions and millions of the earth’s inhabitants, and the great news is that it doesn’t involve sacrifice or self-denial, the old dialectics of economy versus the environment, building for people or for business, equity or wealth, are gone.

In other words doing the right thing for either the health of citizens, or for growing employment, or the improving living conditions, or the quality of public space, or building the most efficient transport systems, or making a great businesses environment, or reducing pollution, revitalising depressed precincts, or attracting young talent, or reducing crime, improving cultural activity, increasing visitor numbers, spreading democracy, improving education, or increasing equality,  are all the same thing. And this can, in short, be captured by the idea of the Happy City.

If you feel sceptical about this conclusion then you need to: Read This Book.

“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city.”

-David Harvey 2008


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  1. You’re right, this is a great book. And thanks for linking it with Walkable City etc as they do tell a remarkably similar tale: more urban(ness) leads to more happiness (when done well), more economic growth and less environmental impact.

    A powerful new approach to problems seen previously as intractably in conflict with each other.

  2. Ok so the question that has bugged me all afternoon. If you have to live in Bogota what the hell do you have to be happy about?

    1. You’ve never been to Bogota I take it? Cool city, great history and characterful buildings (brick skyscrapers!) great nightlife, amazing friendly and welcoming folk and probably the most beautiful people on the planet.

  3. Yes you are right. Bogota is on my list of cities I would happily pay not to go to. Somewhere near Tashkent and Oaxaca on the list. Perhaps I have misjudged it though Wikipedia says they have reduced the murder rate having been regarded as one of the most violent cities in the world in the 90’s

    1. Yes Bogota did have a major crime problem in the 80 and 90s, when their murder rate was similar to New York’s. Luckily both cities have cleaned up their act and have been great places to visit for over a decade.

      It’s funny because my Bogotano family described Auckland as a dead and lifeless, but pretty, place (they haven’t been here in ten years however). They’d ask how you could be happy in a city with no culture and no sense of community. Not bagging on Auckland, just making the point that outsiders perceptions are often totally removed from residents experiences.

      1. I spent 4 months in Colombia in the early 80s, much of it in Bogota. Fond memories of wonderful friendly people, music, dancing and aguadiente. Maybe I will get to go back one day.

        As for cities in general; I have no desire to live or work in them or their suburbs (and I have lived in a few around the world and visited many) but I appreciate that many do. Happiness is a personal thing.

        1. Yes I agree with both your general point about personal choice and your specific one about country living: It’s idyllic when you’re ready for it. And it is the perfect complement to real city living. Suburbia mostly offers the worst of both worlds (both isolated and congested) and only occasionally the best (spacious yet connected). Our guide to which is which is the real estate supplement: all the close in suburbs, leafy, harbour edge, well connected, highly walkable, come a huge premium.

  4. Wow. The late Professor Kenneth Cumberland – he who destroyed the 1940s/50s Rail plan and decided Twizel was a model city for a “New Zealand of the future” – had a real kindred spirit in Henry Ford.

    Did people really think – in the first half of the 20th century – that cities (as we know them) were dying out and that the future of Western Civilisation lay in sprawling suburbs with the “private motorcar” the sole (or at least only practical) means of travel?

    1. In the first half of the 20C, they didn’t think that so much, except for a few ‘visionaries’ like Ford, and others in the very active motoring lobby. But after the war as oil got cheaper and cheaper [it fell in price, in real terms, every year from 1949 to 1970], cars and other manufactured goods also became cheaper, and the American dream spread over almost all of the world, this became the orthodoxy.

      This led to the policies of subsidising dispersed living, flattening older inner parts of cities for highways and parking; the invention of auto-dependant suburbia. And indeed the ‘death’ of cities was much predicted and hoped for by those that wanted this new world. And yes in NZ Prof. Cumberland, the Yorkshire born geographer, was at the lead of the intellectual justification of all this destruction. He absolutely hated cities, in fact it seems he absolutely hated anything that wasn’t just wilderness, perhaps he just hated people, he certainly didn’t like them in any numbers anywhere.

      I have been trying to get a copy of that Twizel episode of his programme for a while, it’s absolutely hilarious; what a miserable misanthropic future he wanted us all to have. Thankfully he was wrong. I should add he did very good work in the field he was positive about: wilderness conservation. But his great mistake was the idea that more country living is good for the natural environment. His activism simply made for more suburbia. And suburbia in the pursuit of country living kills the thing it loves.

      He played dirty too: he was a very early proponent of the Demographica trick of cooking density numbers by dividing an urban population by a land area that includes vast areas of surrounding countryside, parks and other substantial uninhabited places to get a very low figure in order to argue, as he did, against Transit provision in favour of roads.

      Many people today had their views formed during this period and by the world it lead to. It is now of course the conventional view and there is much nostalgia for its ideal even as the all the necessary conditions for it crumble away. And in Auckland’s case the principle one is simply size; Cumberland’s bland and car swamped but leafy ideal can work at low populations, although everyone must be really rich, so therefore it can be seen best in either completely artificial economies [Canberra] or, ironically, in semi-rural satellites to big powerful cities [Long Island], and of course even more ironically in the rail served ‘stock broker belt’ of pretty pre-auto thatched villages that ring London [and its very high salaries] at a sufficiently long distance to be away from the vileness that is the M25.

      It’s bullshit. Cities are the economic engines that make not exploiting every bit of wilderness possible. Cities, real proper city-like cities, are the countryside’s best hope. Highly dispersed living is eating the planet.

      1. All true. And of course, Wellington and town planners loved it because building an autodependent suburb is a lot easier (and cheaper) than building one geared around transit (or accommodating a mix of modes).

        It’s tragic that Auckland was roped into this half-baked utopian nonsense.

        1. Well of course Wellington is actually the only example of a city in NZ that wasnt planned in modern times on Cumberland’s philosophy – places like NaeNae and Porirua were originally planned as rail suburbs where people could walk or cycle to the local station. Wellington was an experiment of European style, State led “cluster and connect” suburbs based around rail transport – as can still be seen in programmes like Copenhagen’s Finger Plan (now up to six fingers) or the “New Town” of Houten in the Netherlands. That was the “Utopian” vision as opposed to the “Arcadian” vision of cities espoused by Cumberland and adopted by the 1949 National government.

          These articles by C E Harris explains all this really well:

          The attraction wasnt really that it made development cheaper but that the capital gain in the development was captured by the private sector rather than the State. This accorded with the National government’s neoliberal philosophy that saw State planning as pretty much communism and the American Way of motorways and auto oriented suburbs (all developed by the private sector) as the capitalist ideal. It wasnt founded on economic grounds but political ideology (sound familiar?).

          The Wellington experiment was a great success and it was planned to roll out to Christchurch and Wellington until the 1949 government came to power. Then the plans were scrapped and Auckland was replanned as the car oriented city we have now – with Cumberland’s enthusiastic support.

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