Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design

By Charles Montgomery

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November 2013; $28, 400 pages.

In 2006, Enrique Penalosa, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, declared war. Not on crime, drugs or poverty, but on cars. He insisted that Bogota, the country’s capital had, like so many other cities around the world, paid a deep price by reorienting how people lived and worked around the automobile. He pointed out that children had disappeared from Bogota’s streets, not because of the fear of crime or abduction, but because of the dangerous, high speeding cars on the streets. Public spaces had also disappeared, converted into roads, parking lots and parking spaces.

Since then, Penalosa has redirected highway funds to pay for an ambitious and very successful bus rapid transit system. He even banned all cars from the streets of the city for a single day. The result: for the first time in four years, nobody was killed in traffic, the toxic haze of car fumes thinned and hospital admissions dropped by almost a third.

Charles Montgomery, the author of Happy City, refers to Mayor Penalosa as the Happiness Mayor for his efforts to change how his city is designed, reorienting its priorities so that a person’s happiness comes first. The book makes a bold statement: Today, more than half of the world’s people live in cities, by 2030, almost 5 billion of us will be urban, and yet cities are not being designed to make us happy. Should they? Montgomery, who is a journalist, believes so, making a passionate argument against what he calls the “dispersed city” which is designed around the automobile.

Montgomery takes the reader on a journey through today’s most interesting cities to make his case. He presents an array of statistics that show over the decades, as we’ve become more wealthy and car-oriented, we’ve become less happy. Swedish research shows that the longer the commute by car, the higher the likelihood of divorce. The same research shows that people who live in “monofunctional, car-dependent” suburbs are much less trusting of other people who live in walkable neighborhoods.

But take a person out of his car and let him walk or ride a bike and he's a happier person, argues Montgomery, who shows how study after study has found this to be the case. He also cites how examples of urban design can contribute to the happiness of those who live there. He writes about the architect who brought the lessons of medieval Tuscan hill towns to New York City; the activist who turned Paris’s urban freeways into beaches and the Americans who have changed the design of the suburban streets and neighborhoods for the better.  The message Montgomery makes is that we need to retrofit our cities for happiness. A happy city is also a green city and a walkable city and, ultimately, a thriving city too.

Maria Nicanor, associate curator of architecture and urbanism at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, said Happy City “cleverly interweaves rigorous inquiry on urban history and the science of happiness with intimate and personal stories that humanize the vast task of understanding urban dynamics.”

Read an excerpt from Happy City here.

About the Author

Tod Newcombe

Tod Newcombe Tod Newcombe -- Senior Editor. With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector.