Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design

By Wright, Jonathan | Geographical, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design


Wright, Jonathan, Geographical


HAPPY CITY: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design

by Charles Montgomery

Penguin, pb, 16.99 [pounds sterling]

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When writing about happy cities, the first and most difficult task is to define happiness. Charles Montgomery, for all his forays into philosophy, economics and brain science, never really provides an adequate solution. He talks about the perennial 'tug-of-war between earthly needs and transcendent hopes, between private pleasures and public goods', but that's rather platitudinous and doesn't really get us very far.

There are, however, some basics when it comes to the more modest goal of making life a tad jollier in our cities and Montgomery's recipe seems reasonable enough. The city should aim to maximise joy and minimise hardship; it should foster health rather than sickness; it should distribute space and services equitably; and it should promote bonds between friends, families and strangers.

This all sounds lovely, but how is it to be achieved? Montgomery is clear about one thing: the prevailing urban paradigm--with its suburban sprawl, isolation, fragmentation and dispersal--is a disaster. We've lost trust in our fellow citizens, we don't feel safe and our sense of neighbourliness and community is moribund.

Montgomery's remedies rely on two main strategies: slowing down and coming closer together. Enter, then, talk of green spaces (from big parks to community gardens), better public transport, creative approaches to residential accommodation and policies that make wandering along our streets more pleasurable. We should turn cities into places where vibrant public life and communal solidarity can thrive. We should stop and have a chat. We shouldn't treat our homes as bunkers. Cars are bad; bikes are good.

This all sounds a bit Utopian but, mercifully, Montgomery peppers his text with realism. He doesn't expect enlightenment and bonhomie to fall from the clear blue (or pollution-choked) sky. On the contrary, he has no problem with 'appealing to pure self-interest'. People should be rewarded for making the right choices about how they move about in cities, and interventionist governmental policy is key when creating spaces that 'lure us closer together'. He provides many examples, drawn from his own travels, of how this can work.

The real difficulty, however--and Montgomery recognises this--is that improving a small section of a city is much easier than transforming an entire metropolis. …

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