Happy City by a Charles Montgomery

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A recommendation from a friend always leads me directly to satisfaction and time well spent. A book I recently read came by way of a colleague when she heard me complain of a recent issue I had with my on-going urban planning research. I was just beginning to get into The Culture of Cities by Lewis Mumford, an urban planning icon pre-Jane Jacobs…meaning he said it before she said it…and what irked me was that I couldn’t really get into it. I couldn’t really enjoy myself and it was because he was saying all the things that I had already read from others, or so I thought until my husband enlightened me. The problem and frustration existed because I had not started at the origin in my long history of urban planning studies, but gone directly to the copycats who piggyback on what Mumford said all along. This was no one person’s fault, getting through architecture school including a Masters of Architecture where I emphasized urban design heavily in my coursework, because the reading starts with and leans toward current urban design theory and education and merely skims the historic surface of the basis for our current schools of thought. The beginning introduction in architecture to urban planning is not Lewis Mumford, but Jane Jacobs and those who came after, with more focus on the Duany Plater-Zyberk and Companies of the profession and the likes (which if you ask me, is so 1990 and not current so we should be skimming those and moving on to bigger and better things if we want the profession to move forward and not backwards but that is neither here nor there and requires another post on the subject).

Having just gone through a tough slew of urban design books I thought would be worth my time and were not, finishing them was out of the question even though they were revered as ‘classics’ for the field of study. As you can see, the review of said books didn’t make the blog reviews here and I also got into a bit of a reading funk, gun-shy about trying another book on a subject I have studied for over a decade and love with all my heart strings. Needless to say, my friend heard me complaining and said, ‘you should read Happy City because it is unlike all those other urban design books’. I immediately added it to my Seattle Public Library request list and received it 2 weeks later.

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What makes this written work such a pariah in the field is it’s modernity (imagine that!). Rather than espouse the same preaching heard over and over about what makes a good city, Charles Montgomery digs deeper into societal patterns to realize how behaviors we have developed over the last 2 decades are shaped directly from our city planning and how negative or positive the results have been. The research is backed by current surveys and studies in neuroscience, how transmitters in our brains and human stimuli react positively or negatively on our psyche. The root of these surveys and Montgomery’s research is layered with a second layer of digging to get to the underlying issue of many topics, like why long-distance commuting is specifically a problem and why making more money doesn’t make us happier as people’s patterns would have us believe. He even goes so far as to prove even though we know what makes us happier, we  continue to make decisions that do not alleviate the ills we spend our time and energy complaining or worrying about.

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The opening chapter uses the Bogota mayor Enrique Penalosa who campaigned on making the streets better for walking and biking, not for cars and pollution, an example to set the stage for the theme of the book. The big act of lifting the car veil to make safer, healthier streets started a march to improve the entire perspective on what people thought would make them happy and gave people a solution to achieve it. He believes the majority of Bogotan people will never be as rich as other nations and will never be satisfied continuing to compare themselves to what the ‘dream’ is. Instead, he focused on making urban life more enjoyable on a day-to-day basis to equate to a happier society as a result. The strategy seems to be working for Colombians in Bogota and can be an example to use when thinking about how we prioritize our spending and what matters to us. So much of our life is effected by the way our city has developed and continues to operate and it isn’t too late to reverse some not so good things in favor of things that will better ourselves in the long-run. Therefore, making tighter communities and give us greater accountability to each other to thrive and rely upon neighbors with mutual respect and tolerance.

Charles Montgomery has said it well and I will be following his future book releases for enlightened ideas about our urban landscape.

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