Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design


A discussion about Bogota, Colombia’s successes in prioritizing people over cars and creating public open space sets the direction for this book, which early on quotes city Mayor Enrique Penalosa, who said:

“Great public space is a kind of magical good. It never ceases to yield happiness. It is almost happiness itself.” Having set the agenda, the rest of this book is spent discussing how to make cities happy places.

Broadly speaking, Montgomery focuses on the commuter suburb, cycling and public transport, public open space, and dense urban living; alternating stories of where it went wrong with examples of how to do it better. This is a wide sweep which occasionally makes a convoluted argument, but the book’s breadth is one of its great strengths and certainly makes for
an interesting read as it compares suburbs of walkers with suburbs of commuters, evaluates the cost of cars, public transport and bikes, considers spatial activation, costs of commuting, discusses the contribution of open space and quite a lot more besides.

The book is clearly the product of considerable investigation, and is narrated through a mix of social and spatial research, and a global spread of exemplars (though most are North American), backed by numerous details and statistics. 

There are, for example, metrics on how long people will spend walking to amenities (shops - ten minutes, bus - five minutes and light-rail - ten minutes); on what kind of transport makes people happy (cycling at 65%), and what kind makes people fat (commuting = 4kg) and far more besides. In fact, there are enough statistically validated examples for you to win almost any argument on this topic.

Many people reading this book will already be believers and for us, having persuaded our client that a walkable suburb is a good idea, the science and metrics that will help guide achieving this will be the book’s biggest contribution. 

For me, I would have liked more on this, and fewer sorry tales. However, I am pleased to have a well-thumbed copy on my shelf; and while it isn’t a page-turner, whether you read it in one sitting or dip into it sporadically I promise you will enjoy doing so and probably learn stuff; and I can’t fault its breadth, research, or intent. So it’s $20 well spent at Amazon. 

Reviewed by Neil Challenger, January 2017

Books, UrbanNZILA