Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Happy City by Charles Montgomery

I was lucky enough to bump into this delightful read in the new non-fiction section of the library. Although I've read more than my fair share of smart growth books, it has been a while, so I thought I would give Happy City a chance. And I was so glad I did - I feel very warmly about this inspiring and, well, happy book. It is not overly sentimental or unduly optimistic, but it gives some entertaining and solid evidence for how good design can make us happier, and it has plenty of anecdotal evidence that people can change enough to make his recommendations work. It was also just a lot of good fun (for example, did you know that you are more likely to give to charity when getting off an ascending escalator rather than a descending one?).

I am the first to say that if you care about anything - health, economics, social justice, beauty, family, the environment - you should care about smart growth, and Charles Montgomery really brings every one of these issues to bear on good urban design. Here are a few themes that really struck me as fresh ideas.


"...we all live in systems that shape our travel behavior. And most of us live in systems that give us almost no choice in how to live or get around. Americans have it worst. Even though a majority of Americans now tell pollsters that they would like to live in walkable communities...these places are in massive undersupply." (p. 194)
Trying to convince people that cutting car dependency gives them more freedom is a bizarrely tough sell, considering that "dependency" is right there in the name. But Montgomery explains it very plainly. When cities are built around cars (as in the urban sprawl that has been the major design strategy for the past fifty years or so), well, you pretty much have one option if you want to go somewhere or do anything: get in your car. Whether you are someone who likes to drive or hates to drive, you still have one option: get in your car. Maybe you could walk to that gas station that is a mile or two away, but you can be sure that the walk will be long, ugly, unpleasant, and likely unsafe.

On the other hand, when cities are built around a variety of modes of travel - walking, biking, private cars, public transit  - everyone has more choices. If you like to drive, you can still drive. But if you don't, you have the freedom to travel in a different way. And this freedom is much more fulfilling than the "freedom" cars offer of being able to go wherever you want, whenever you want. That how we get places has a big effect on our happiness.

Also related to freedom, Montgomery devotes a chapter to zoning codes. Zzzzzzzzzz... I can hear you thinking. But zoning codes that mandate sprawl (for example, by requiring new businesses to provide a ridiculously large number of parking spaces, or requiring streets to be a certain minimum width) are behind most of the dispersal that makes cities unwalkable, ugly, and unsafe. In other words, sprawl did not happen as a result of free agents making free choices in a free market. In many cases, zoning codes limited (and still limit!) our urban design choices. 


"By any objective assessment, the happy mayor's efforts to make the poor feel more equal actually made them more equal." (p. 238)
"Most of the noise, air pollution, danger, and perceived crowding in modern cities occurs because we have configured urban spaces to facilitate high-speed travel in private automobiles. We have traded conviviality for the convenience of those who wish to experience streets as briefly as possible." (p. 170) 
The example of Bogotá, Colombia, keeps coming up in Happy City, and it is a good lesson about what designing urban spaces for equality can look like and accomplish. Mayor Peñalosa's initiatives included investing heavily in "sexy" rapid public transportation, so that those who had to use buses felt better about it and got where they were going faster, and so that those who might not otherwise use public transit started doing so. He also created streets that reversed the typical layout of poor streets in developing countries: rather than paving the street to make drivers' (and thus a wealthy minority's) lives easier, he paved the middle of the street for the exclusive use of pedestrians and bicycles, leaving cars to drive on the unpaved sides of the road.

The issue of equality often comes up in urban development discussions: where should limited tax and development dollars be focused? Is it more important for sidewalks and bus routes to be developed in poor neighborhoods because "they are the ones who use them" (an actual argument I've heard advanced in my town)? What of gentrification? Good for poor neighborhoods, bad, indifferent?

While Montgomery admits that social policy is outside the scope of his book, he does devote a chapter to asking "Who are our cities for?" Even if you don't really care about your neighbor, Montgomery argues that societies that feel more equal are better for everyone, rich and poor alike. It turns out that people don't like feeling that they have less worth than other people, and in countries with high income disparity (like our own), this very feeling of inequality leads to all kinds of social ills.


"Cities that care about livability have got to start paying attention to the psychological effect that traffic has on the experience of public space." (p. 167)
All the happiness research I have read comes down to pretty much one thing: relationships. Once you are satisfactorily fed, clothed, and sheltered, the quality of your relationships will make or break your happiness. Fair enough. But how can smart urban design improve our relationships?

First of all, Montgomery addresses the "super commute" and all the other effects of urban sprawl that have us spending hours per week in our cars (often alone). Car commuting, especially over long distances, can not only keep us away from our families before and after work; it creates stress that makes us less likely to enjoy that time with our family when we get it.

Second, our most important relationships with family and close friends are not the only ones that contribute to our happiness. Montgomery cites research that the minor relationships in our lives - with our neighbors, the mailman, that guy who works in his garden on the next block - affect our happiness almost as much. The reason for this is that they are human connections without some of the stress of our closest relationships, and they create a tapestry of humanity around us. Not surprisingly, this makes us happier. Urban design that puts us into contact with our neighbors regularly can build up this important resource.

Finally, as noted in the quote above, the noise, danger, and just ugliness created by fast cars and car-centric development hurt conviviality. Montgomery cites very telling research about how traffic and noise affect the way we interact and treat one another. In one example, residents on a low-traffic street in San Francisco reported having many more connections with their neighbors than a high-traffic street, even though the streets were the same in every other regard. In my own city, I thought of the examples of one-way streets and the freeway cutting through the heart of downtown: the noise of fast cars just keeps people away (or in their own cars).

The great thing about Happy City is that, despite laying out all the obstacles to the happy, green, flourishing, ideal city, Montgomery concludes with optimism. He shares stories of people changing their lives for the better at the individual level, the neighborhood level, and the city level, proving that in spite of unfriendly zoning, decades of dispersal, and some naysayers who deny that sprawl makes our lives worse, there is something each of us can do. 

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