Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
by Charles Montgomery.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Hardcover, 290 pages, $27.

This is a fascinating and informative but at the same time maddening book. It contains a wealth of evidence making the case that we need more dense, walkable settlements for both environmental and social reasons. But it also contains too many questionable arguments and undocumented claims to be the book it should have been.

Montgomery opens by introducing us to the “happiness” revolution that occurred in Bogotá, where around the turn of the twenty-first century, two successive mayors sought to transform the culture and landscape of “one of the very worst” places on earth in which to live. The second of them, Enrique Peñalosa, focused on the design of urban space as a way of healing a city’s ills. For instance, he gave buses and bikes precedence over cars on city streets, partly as a way to ease his city’s terrible congestion, but also as a way to raise the status of those who did not own cars. By all reports, Peñalosa’s reforms were a spectacular success, although the city has retrogressed of late. (Montgomery notes this retrogression without really explaining it, an important omission.)

Bogotá’s problems arose from many factors, but one was the privileging of automobiles over all other forms of transport in city design, and the resulting sprawl. Montgomery points out that modern sprawl is the result of deliberate decisions on the part of policymakers: Sprawl “is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.It is not organic. It is not an accident. It was not fashioned … in a free market. It was shaped by powerful financial incentives, massive public investment, and strict rules defining how land and roads can be developed and used.” Among other woes, Montgomery notes that we can even link suffering from the Great Recession to sprawl: “the farther a house was from a vibrant city center, the more likely it was to experience foreclosure during the crash, the deeper its price collapsed, the less likely that price bounced back since, and the less analysts now expected it to be worth in the future.”

How did this perverse state of affairs come about? For one thing, the automobile lobby succeeded in reshaping our landscape for the benefit of automobiles. Streetcars were banished, even though “In the Chicago Loop, streetcars used 2 percent of the road space but still carried three-quarters of road users.” And to clear the unruly pedestrians who once freely roamed city streets out of the way of automobiles, a new crime was invented: jaywalking.

It is not just city residents without cars who suffer from these arrangements: even the suburbanites who drive into the city seem worse off because of them:

[The] finding [of Frey and Stutzer] was seemingly straightforward: the longer the [commute] the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. So … people were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse.

When Montgomery seeks an explanation as to why we make such seeming mistakes, he turns to behavioral economics, which is fine. But then he sticks “the evolutionary happiness function” in the middle of a page, with no explanation of what its components mean. Even in a highly technical academic journal, authors who use an equation like this must explain what the variables mean or else it is incomprehensible. Without such an explanation on offer, it appears Montgomery simply wanted to make things look daunting.

Montgomery next turns his attention to a related problem, twentieth-century modernism in city design, exemplified by the work of Le Corbusier and his followers, whose error was their desire to elevate abstractions over the concrete: “An especially common trap is the tendency to simplify multifaceted problems.” This desire for abstract perfection had its apotheosis in Brasilia, the extensively planned Brazilian capital. But the result of this effort was a city so disconcerting to live in that residents coined a special word for the angst it gave them: brasilite.

In many cases, the goalsof the planners were admirable: for instance, they wished to ease access for emergency vehicles with their street-widening plans. But Montgomery contends this project failed: “Just as many people die in fires new, wide-street suburbs as were dying in old, narrow-street neighborhoods.” However, here this book’s problem with documentation again rears its ugly head: Is “just as many” a gross number, or a death rate? It would be very good to know, but Montgomery does not tell us from where he got this fact.

Perhaps the most important thing cities offer us is contact with our fellow humans, something we crave: “A bench facing the passing crowds got ten times as much use as a bench that faced a flower bed.” But this contact must come in the right form: a mixture of the ability to connect and the ability to withdraw as needed. When people are forced into an all-or-nothing mode of contact, the presence of others becomes a burden: “People who live in residential towers, for example, consistently tell psychologists that they feel lonely and crowded by other people at the very same time.”

Denied the possibility of people-watching offered by a walkable neighborhood, suburbanites turn to watching people on TV. But, Montgomery claims, this is costly: “The more TV you watch, the fewer friendships you’re likely to have, the less trusting you become, and the less happy you’re likely to be.” While I find this assertion plausible, once again, it is unsourced, and perhaps causation runs in the other direction.

But what about the economic growth offered by sprawl and the high-volume, “big-box” stores it encourages? Montgomery offers an interesting case study, from Asheville, North Carolina, suggesting that this growth is an illusion. A mixed-use building in downtown Asheville occupied .2 acres, as opposed to the 34 acres occupied by the Asheville Walmart. But it generated 100 times the tax per acre, it housed 90 residents as opposed to zero at the Walmart, and produced 73 jobs per acre, as opposed to six at the Walmart.

When Montgomery’s attention turns to his hometown of Vancouver, we seem to have an example of a city that has taken the principles enunciated in this book seriously, and has done very well as a result: in many surveys, it ranks among the top cities in the world in which to live. However, Vancouver’s success has had its downside: on February 6, 2013, the Huffington Post reported that Vancouver had become the most expensive city in North America in which to live. Montgomery is aware of this problem: “As the wealthy recolonize downtowns in inner suburbs, and this property values rise accordingly, millions of people are simply being excluded.”

But here it seems that Montgomery is abusing the word “excluded.” We live in a world of scarcity, and not everyone can do everything they might want to do, no matter what social arrangements we choose. If I buy a house, then everyone else who didn’t buy that house is, as Montgomery is using the term, “excluded” from also owning it. But this is a very different sense of “excluded” from “Blacks once were excluded from many neighborhoods due to nefarious real-estate practices.” It will not do to have every person in the world moving to downtown Vancouver, but that doesn’t mean that they’re being “excluded” in any pejorative sense of the term.

In what is perhaps the most important chapter of his book, Montgomery talks about “sprawl repair.” He argues here that the most effective thing suburbs could do is to eliminate the destructive zoning laws that almost force sprawl upon people. Most suburbs have in essence legally mandated that a majority of residents cannot possibly walk to anything worth walking to from their homes. Shopping, entertainment, and industry are all forbidden from most residential neighborhoods. And we ought all to be concerned about fixing this; as Montgomery notes, “people who live in sprawl are among the least likely of Americans to volunteer, vote, join political parties, or rise up and raise hell.”

Montgomery has written an engaging and important book that is well worth reading: the occasional absence of documentation is a minor flaw in a major achievement. The book’s message of how our environment affects our lives is of great importance. However, despite Montgomery’s caveats scattered here and there through the text, this work sometimes seems to offer the utopian message that “if only we get our urban design right, we can cure all the woes of the human soul.” And that is too simple an analysis of our condition. 

Gene Callahan is a lecturer in economics at Purchase College and a Research Fellow at the Collingwood and British Idealism Studies at Cardiff University, Wales. He is the author of Economics for Real People and Oakeshott on Rome and America.