Long commutes make us miserable. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. A city can actually make us happy. That may be a bit harder to believe, but it’s the central tenet of journalist Charles Montgomery’s new book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.
While the words “urban design” seem to forebode a lot of dry, technical writing, this book is refreshingly light and easy to read. Montgomery puts the focus on philosophy and broader concepts. The varied content will appeal to many different audiences. Anyone reading this book will be stimulated to look around their own neighborhood and consider how the urban design is enhancing or hindering their happiness.
For Montgomery, the most unhappy place a human being can live is urban sprawl. This is mostly because it requires commuting by car to work. This makes us depressed, obese, and lonely. Oh, and it’s bad for the environment. The early part of Happy City is packed with statistics to prove this point. According to a study conducted in Sweden, people whose commutes are longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent more likely to divorce. On the other hand, “exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love” (p. 85).
Montgomery argues that, apart from ditching our commutes, happiness in our living situations requires two things. The first is regular exposure to nature, preferably diverse types. Nature makes up happier—and it even makes us nicer. According to one study Montgomery looked at, “people who lived near green spaces knew more of their neighbors. They reported that their neighbors were friendlier and more supportive” (p. 113). The second factor for happy living is regular but controlled contact with our fellow human beings. We need to be able to interact with others, but we also need to escape them easily when we desire solitude. “The richest environments are those in which we feel free to edge closer together or move apart as we wish,” he writes (p. 139). This balance can be accomplished through careful urban design.
Many of Montgomery’s ideas are very interesting. Unfortunately, his analysis of the causes of and solutions to our current problems is muddied by cliché, mainstream ideas. He sees government as good and the free market as bad. He throws terms such as “capitalism” around without understanding what they mean.
For instance, Montgomery says that modern urban sprawl developed in response to various government incentives. The accelerated depreciation tax deduction encourages businesses to build new facilities rather than renovating older ones. The home mortgage interest tax deduction rewards individuals for buying new homes in the suburbs rather than older ones in the city. For decades, highways have been subsidized at a much higher rate than public transport.
Thus far, most libertarians would be in absolute agreement with Montgomery. But then he writes, “If all this sounds like a big fat bonus for property developers, well, it is. But the truth is, as long as we inhabit a capitalist system, the future of suburbia depends on them” (p. 295).
The system that he is describing is not capitalism. It’s cronyism. And honest defenders of capitalism find it deplorable.
Montgomery displays similar ignorance in chapter 12 when he starts using the terms “Tea Party” and “libertarian” interchangeably. He is under the impression that they are the same thing. This is perhaps understandable since he is Canadian, but if he is going to write about American affairs—and assume an authoritative tone—he should do some more research.
Despite his avowed opposition to “capitalism,” Montgomery unintentionally incorporates quite a bit of free market thinking into his book. Take the law of unintended consequences: he describes how central planners in the 1950s started making roads wider to ensure fire trucks could get through quickly. This was intended to save lives, but it actually cost lives because the wider streets encouraged faster driving which led to more pedestrian deaths.
He also argues that cities can be improved in a wide variety of ways. Each city has its own unique needs, and so efforts should be led by residents. That sounds an awful lot like local knowledge.
Montgomery says too many street signs actually make traffic less safe. For instance, several cities in the Netherlands actually removed most traffic signs “to force all travelers to think and communicate more with one another” (p. 217). The rate of accidents dropped dramatically. When individuals have to take responsibility for their own safety, they take greater care.
When discussing the need for urban design that brings people together, Montgomery begins by arguing that the governments should do more to subsidize social housing. Then, one paragraph later, he describes the best communal living situation he has ever come across. It was founded and is still managed entirely by private individuals (p. 147).
Montgomery acknowledges that urban design today is determined almost entirely by government codes. He writes, “the vast majority of cities in the developed world have been shaped by rules that might already be considered totalitarian for the level of control they exert” (p. 300). He calls on us to stand up against this totalitarian control and provides some inspiring examples of ordinary citizens who did just that. For instance, a twelve-year old boy in Saratoga Springs, New York, wanted to bicycle to school. However, his local school board forbad students from biking or walking to school. Only bus and car drop-offs were permitted. He biked anyway and got extensive media coverage. Eventually, the embarrassed school board changed its policy.
We would all do well to emulate this boy. We have the capacity to improve our neighborhoods by standing up to ridiculous rules. As for Montgomery, he would do well to reconsider his blind faith in the government that made those rules in the first place.
Emma Elliott Freire is an American writer living in England. Housing development image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.