Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design – Charles Montgomery

It is one of the four books on city planning I got from my mum last Christmas. I have Polish editions, but where I can identify the English version I’ll refer to it for convenience (it saves me re-translating the title). My mum is a civil engineer and I am an art historian by education. Therefore, architecture and city planning naturally became the fields that we connect on easily and find interesting.

The preface is by Filip Springer, a Polish writer, and photographer, often writing about architecture and Polish cities. He highlights one important aspect of this book – it is very focused on the US sprawl (or ‘dispersed cities’ as Montgomery calls them). Not to say that we don’t have sprawl in Europe, but not to this extent and not with such a tradition. Springer also rightly adds, that as much as zoning laws in the US is one of the problems highlighted by Montgomery, Poland actually suffers from the opposite problem. There are hardly any comprehensive city plans and zoning laws, so Polish cities and suburbs are damaged by chaotic construction that is oriented only towards making money. The chaos is overpowering everything. So it does make you think whether it is worse to have bad zoning laws or no zoning laws.

Montgomery starts by describing a day he spent with Enrique Peñalosa around 2001. He is in awe of Peñalosa’s ideas and his drive to execute them. The idea of returning the city to the people deeply resonated with Montgomery. And granted since then Peñalosa has become a big name in a discussion about city planning. He must have done something right if after his 1998-2001 term, he was elected again for the 2016-2019 term (in Colombia one cannot hold office for consecutive terms). Still, Montgomery sounds a bit like he is having a fan moment. Which made me worried about the book a bit.

From this anecdote, he, predictably, moves on to discuss what happiness means (for a more in-depth view of this topic check The Geography of Bliss) and how was it reflected in the urban architecture throughout the centuries. He sides with the concept that a required condition for happiness is having meaning in one’s life, including its social aspect. To have a meaningful social relation we all need trust and to build trust we have to meet and interact. This will be one of the motives recurring throughout the book. Mongomery firmly believes that architecture and city planning has a huge influence on how we interact, by making us commute for hours or by creating friendly spaces that encourage random as well as planned meetings. This is one of the foundational themes of the book.

The other is the importance of walking (a topic closely shared with the next book I read, which was Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit). Montgomery takes us throughout the history of city planning since cars were invented. And it indeed is a history of decentralization and never-ending fight with traffic congestion. We are always making our streets wider so that more cars can get into the city. But the more we do it the more people are dying in car accidents (especially in the suburbs), the further everything gets and in the end, we really cannot get anywhere on foot. But if we stop walking we will never meet anyone by chance. The social connection is made physically impossible. It is anyway in the current situation, but at least now not by design. But when you think of it designing the cities for cars is really designing them for isolation. People become isolated within their households. There’s no more accidental meeting, no more spontaneous nights out, everything has to be planned in advance with the cost of commute factored in.

Designing cities for cars calls out the fact that sprawl did not just happen. It is not a natural disaster. It as planned for, it is being enforced by the zoning laws in the US. So why would anyone do that on purpose? According to Montgomery dividing and isolating the functions of a city was a knee jerk reaction for the dramatic condition of the industrial cities, with their pollution, poverty, and suffering. It was very clear that combining the industrial function and living quarters did not work. So naturally, modernists decided to isolate the functions from one another. Separate the industry from the living, work from recreation, put shopping somewhere else, so people are not inundated. The cars only helped that process of decentralization.

Apart from the zoning laws, there is one more trait that is specific to the US, or maybe the Americas in general. The reliance on cars as opposed to public transport. Europe seems to be a bit more geared towards having a usable public transport. Frankly, in London it is way faster to travel on the Tube than by car, I was silly enough to accept an offer of a lift from a friend in my first year in London, it took 1.5 hrs, while the Tube would take me 35 mins.

The last aspect I’ll mention (there’s a lot more in the book!) is the climate change. First of all the sprawl generates more car traffic, we all know what that means. Also, the dispersed housing is extremely inefficient energetically, heating or cooling each detached house is just not economical. But one thing that surprised me was the fact that the sprawl not only contributes to climate change. It is also extremely vulnerable to it. Dispersed cities are a lot more fragile in the case of heatwaves, they heat up a lot faster than densely built centers. As Montgomery says it’s all the asphalt.

There is so much more to make you think in this book. It explains the problem in simple terms and then searches for solutions, sometimes losing the way and backtracking, but honest about it. And it ends fittingly with the call to action. There is no will in the US governments, central or local, to change the way cities are planned. So we have to become citadines, citizens in the literal sense of the world, and take the matters in our own hands. Otherwise, we’ll live in a world where it is illegal for a child to cycle to school.

Who is the city for? Now, for cars. Who should it be for? People.

Some cities are already going that way. Take a look at Copenhagen, Bogota or London. The last one maybe surprisingly, but people from the suburbs often commute using public transport and thanks to the (barely surviving) high street each neighborhood has all it needs within walking distance.

Where do you live? Does it make you happy? Do you have everything you need within walking distance?

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com 

7 thoughts on “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design – Charles Montgomery

  1. This sounds like a fascinating book! I live in a big city in Texas and the concerns you wrote about ring true. The suburbs are expanding the city every year and commutes are very long. There is also always construction being done to widen the highways. I really would love to see some solutions played out to better the situation so less people will lose their lives in accidents and so that more time can be spent with family and friends rather than waiting in rush hour traffic. Thank you for a wonderful post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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