Happy City (Charles Montgomery)

Pop-creativity books, like Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine,” often write about “network effects” in cities: the kinds of things that happen when you not only put people closer together, but when they’re able to experience a sense of community. Most of these stories, however, leave out key requirements: do people actually walk and bicycle, allowing them to interact with their local environment, instead of driving a car from their garage to the big-box store and back? Do people feel valued as pedestrians, or is their community designed with the needs of cars first? How does the layout of an apartment complex, a neighborhood, a public space affect how people interact with it and with each other? In “Happy City”, Charles Montgomery explores these questions and other details, including discussions of what makes a public space usable, studies showing how far people are willing to walk or bicycle to amenities, and conversations with individuals about how public transit works or doesn’t work for them.

Much of Montgomery’s writing centers on reducing personal car usage. We’ve all seen the graphics showing transit density on a bus vs. a car, yet none of us take public transit: “why?”, the book asks. It digs into the legal history of public transit vs. cars, negative social perceptions against bicycling and taking public transit, the ineffectiveness of non-car forms of transportation when living in sprawl (or “dispersed cities”, as the author prefers), and even the impacts of zoning and building codes with required quantities of parking or road space per building. It’s a nuanced, multifaceted approach to discussion of how public spaces have been shaped and the impacts that has on public life, which in itself makes the book worth reading. It talks about cities that have tried to reverse that trend, using Bogotá’s bicycle-only days as a prime example.

Montgomery focuses on measures of “happiness”, rather than traditional “quality-of-life” indicators, whether that’s through surveys or just talking to members of communities about their stress levels and feelings of belonging. His anecdotes span from problems experienced designing suburban Atlanta to the sixty-mile commutes found commonly in the San Francisco Bay Area to success stories of higher-quality living in Bogotá, Copenhagen, Montreal. In each case, he’s a story-teller: whether that’s writing about the stress-induced health problems of a lifetime commuter, the trust found in a street of homeowners that tore down their fences and became like an extended family, or the joy that individuals described to him when switching from a car to a bicycle. The book’s tone is positive, with uplifting stories of city transformations showing that individual citizens can and have driven initiatives to redesign public spaces and transit options, that personal choices including where someone lives and how they commute can really increase their quality of life, and that cities which have made concerted efforts have been successful at making non-car methods of transportation usable for everyone.

The book is an easy read, intended for a broader audience rather than an academic once. The book’s format can be inconsistently jarring, though: references for studies cited or data used are relegated to the back of the book, without reference numbers inline to interrupt the flow of reading; yet, there remains a constant stream of footnotes to distract the reader.

A few things seem oddly missing: there’s little discussion of self-driving cars and how those might reasonably change the transportation landscape in the near future. Montgomery uses Mableton, GA as an example of a suburb that was able to rezone an area into a more usable public downtown, but largely leaves alone extreme cases of sprawl like Phoenix. But the book overall tackles a difficult topic in an accessible way, even providing pointers toward realistic ways to rework the “dispersed cities” that have already been created. Score: 4/5