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