In Happy City, Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery, the author presents a refreshing perspective of cities as urban laboratories, where social equitability can be achieved through relatively low-cost redesigning.  By reshaping our streets and public spaces to be human-scaled, through traffic thinning, extensive bike infrastructure, complete streets, and high-quality mass transit, cities can become more livable for all age and income levels.  Cities are happiest when its citizens can move about freely and be in contact with others in the public arena.  During the 20th century, American cities became so car-oriented that downtowns became ghost-towns after business hours, dominated by parking lots and desolate streets.  Freeways and “urban renewal” chopped up formerly vibrant neighborhoods and left permanent damage to urban fabrics from coast to coast.  Cities became tremendously dispersed, building far out to the hinterlands, leading to a whole host of new social and economic problems.

How We Got Here – Everything in its’ Place

The pattern of urban sprawl has its roots in the late 19th century when cities like London were reeling from the effects of industrial pollution.  American and European planners of the day reacted to the pollution problem by adopting a position of “everything in its place”, a paradigm codified into U.S. law in 1926 when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a town which claimed its right to restrictive zoning.  Keeping everything in its place was an idea that also took on the tone of fear of exposure to diversity.  People flocked to suburbia so they could live in the sort of neighborhoods they thought would appeal to them, an example of emotional rather than objective decision making.  The propensity for people to do what they want is not always in harmony with what’s good for them and, ultimately, what would really make them happy.  Mr. Montgomery found, for example, that many people living in high-rise apartments did not derive social benefit from proximity but, in fact, were isolated from others by long hallways and awkward elevator encounters with strangers.

Balance of Density and Down Time

Though some people enjoy living in high-rise apartments, maintaining friendships and enjoying the perks of luxury living, one man found joy when he left his lofty apartment for a courtyard centered townhouse.   Around the convivial setting of the landscaped courtyard, he found new friendships and a pleasing mix of proximity and privacy.  This townhouse setting approximates what the author calls the ideal mix of density and down-time found in the streetcar suburbs of the early 20th century, where homes were built close enough together to support the nearby streetcar line, but on leafy streets with backyards and front porches.

Happy Cities support Walking and Cycling

Another element of happiness in urban design are “complete streets” that foster connectivity within communities, where protected bike lanes and landscaped sidewalks link homes with commerce and public transportation nearby.  Walking is a well-known form of exercise that is easy for short distances – walks under 10 minutes.  For greater distances - from a half mile to three miles or more, the bicycle is the key to freedom for tens of millions of people who don’t drive.  The bike is the most efficient transit mode because cycling requires less energy than walking and a person can cycle almost anywhere in the 25 minutes it takes the average commuter to reach the workplace.  Since owning a car is costly, made more so by the fact that part of the cost of owning a car is the amount of time spent working to have the car, the bicycle can be a liberating mode of transit.  Selling the car, using a bike, and joining a car-share company for occasional errands means flexibility at a fraction of the cost of owning a car.  Economist Eric Britton advised against “old mobility” transportation systems and encouraged a new paradigm of allowing the greatest number of ways for people to get around.  Redesigning our streets to accommodate separate bike paths so that everyone feels safe on two wheels, including grandmothers and small children, means freedom and social equitability for all.

Who is the City For? – Equitable Planning

The former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, Enrique Peñalosa, said in his inauguration speech that “only a city that respects human beings can expect citizens to respect the city in return”.  He began his term by making good on his central campaign pledge of restoring social, if not income, equality by radically and fundamentally changing the pattern of the urban fabric.  By carving out an extensive network of separated bike lanes from the streets, creating weekly car-free Sundays, restoring parks and other public spaces, and building a 5-line BRT, he essentially opened up the city to all its citizens.  The quality of life for millions of people improved and the crime rate fell precipitously.  Locales in the United States are waking up to the benefits of complete streets and multi-modal transit – new mobility that allows people to move in the greatest variety of ways.  Not only does this mean freedom in the way we live, but it also means economic prosperity.  A direct, causal link was established in the Netherlands after that country built the world’s most extensive bike infrastructure and saw its economic output (GNP) and average income substantially increase.  When people walk and ride bikes on a daily basis, and are exposed to nature, they are happier and more productive. 

Book author:  Charles Montgomery  (2013)  321 pages