Happy City by Charles Montgomery

Happy City by Charles Montgomery

Given how much urban design affects our lives, it’s surprising how little we think about and participate in it. This book was eye-opening in terms of the way I look at cities and how its inhabitants interact with them.

I took for granted the idea that cities should be friendly to car-travel, but the book highlights many ways in which a focus on car-friendliness makes cities worse overall. It was interesting to see examples of how cities can flourish when they prioritize the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit.


What I Liked

  • Lively style made for an engaging read
  • Interesting case studies examining different angles of cities in a variety of cities around the globe.
  • Good mix of scientific studies, interviews, and personal research

What I Disliked

  • Some of the concept felt as though the author overgeneralized based on limited academic studies or anecdotal data.

Key Takeaways

  • People are bad at predicting which factors will make them happy with their living space
    • Aesthetics matter much less than how the living space facilitates interaction between members of the community.
  • People make irrational decisions when considering car commuting time in choice of employment
    • People will commute farther for higher salaries, but fail to properly measure their net income after paying for gas, insurance, maintenance, etc.
    • People also fail to predict the happiness they’ll derive by trading commute time for salary. Long commutes make people sad, so the salary bump to make it worthwhile needs to be much higher than most people think.
  • Most American cities were designed based on theories of urban design that were never rigorously tested and contradict modern research.
    • The grid design of streets in American cities is influenced by the design of Roman garrison towns, where one of the primary design goals was limiting rebellion.
  • American cities were designed under the assumption that people want to live in one area, shop in another, and work in another.
    • This is codified in rigid zoning laws that prevent cities from growing organically based on what people need in particular areas.
    • This leads to sprawl and suburbanization, forcing people to rely on driving to get around.
  • Greater sprawl makes it harder for cities to offer public services.
    • People expect to be happiest in big houses with big yards and lots of space from neighbors, but this leads to sparsely-occupied towns and cities.
    • When communities occupy a large, sparse area, it’s more expensive to run buses, maintain roads, offer police/fire protection.
    • Denser communities lead to more positive relationships with neighbors and easier lifestyle because it puts more shops and services within walking distance.
  • Private cars impose many external costs that are borne by the community as a whole rather than the drivers themselves.
    • Take up more space per person than almost all other modes of transportation, cause faster road wear, pollute the air, create noise pollution, limit places where pedestrians can walk.
  • There is a common notion that for an area of the city to attract people, it needs lots of road and parking access, but there have been several examples where banning cars has revitalized an area
  • There’s an important distinction between “crowding” and “population density.”
    • Crowding is a feeling. The design of a living space can increase or reduce this feeling.
    • People feel crowded and stressed when they aren’t in control of their interaction (e.g., don’t have a private room, have to interact with strangers to use bathroom).
    • It’s possible to design a space well so that it achieves high density without crowding.