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Book Review: Happy City by Charles Montgomery

In this post, I provide a review of Charles Montgomer's 2015 book "Happy City."
An image of me smiling in front of a sprawling city with lots of hot air balloons. As envisioned by MidJourney.
An image of me smiling in front of a sprawling city with lots of hot air balloons. As envisioned by MidJourney.
Every Thanksgiving, I devise a list of topics to read about in the upcoming year. Throughout the year, I may post book reviews on specific titles or list the ones I could make it through with some basic thoughts.

A few targeted topics for 2023 have been Urban Planning, Equity in Design, and Eco Sustainability. It just so happens that "Happy City" by Charles Montgomery provides an excellent intersection for all three.

I've been interested in these three topics for some time. A fascination with urban design started with the video game SimCity 2000 in the mid-nineties. Friends can readily attest that I was perhaps borderline addicted to this game.

My interest in equitable design emerged while working for Trivantis Corp in the early 2000s. They develop electronic learning tools like course design software and LMS tools. What kid growing up in the 90s didn't have some connection with eco-sustainability? All the recycling messaging, Earth Day tree plantings, and even Captain Planet contributed to this well before Climate Change became the hot-button topic it deserves to be.

Happy City focuses heavily on multi-modal transportation options, the shift in urban design to costly automobile-heavy infrastructure, and the impact of the dispersed city on the community experience - or rather, its dissolving of the community experience.

A deeper look at Bogata, Columbia, shows a risky experiment to provide city-wide bike paths that led to reduced traffic, decreased traffic accidents, improved constituent happiness and satisfaction, and a healthier, more breathable environment. This was so measurable that an annual holiday is celebrated enthusiastically, where most people do not drive cars for the entire day. The streets instead fill with bicycles and pedestrians.

Communities like one in Portland, Oregon, USA, show us that the dispersed city causes a breakdown in community involvement, which can be reversed.

Montgomery details how automobile infrastructure (namely roads), when expanded somewhat counterintuitively, leads to an increase in automobile congestion and auto accidents.

The author also goes into some historical accounting of how tree-lined streets lead to safer automobile driving habits, and those same trees naturally lead to increased mental health for the local population. Scientific studies show that simply looking at plants and arboreal fixtures increases happiness and decreases stress.

Review by other cities worldwide continues as cities like Copenhagen, Vancouver, and more have started adjusting how their cities engage in planned development to provide diverse options. Vancouver, in particular, incentivizes "happy city" design with local ordinances that require structures to provide an unobstructed view of the nearby mountains.

This book was fascinating, and I was quite happy with the coverage of so many great topics. Not only does Happy City fulfill my urge for learning, but it's had my mind spinning for months about how different the world could be, particularly in North America, if we approached urban design with a mind toward sustainability and happiness instead of automotive priorities.

I highly recommend this book.