Friday, 3 February 2017

"Happy City" by Charles Montgomery: A digested read

 Happy City
(Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design)
Charles Montgomery

Penguin Books, 2013

 …and its relevance to cycle campaigners in the UK

My Summary Summarised:

For the future of humankind we need to become less dependant on fossil fuels. To do this we need to be less dependent on transport and live quite densely, in cities, so cities need to be happy places.

(C) Penguin Books


I have a confession to make.  I work as an academic, but I have never before in my life read a non-fiction book through cover to cover.  Theses and papers yes, but book, no. I read this book right through. It explained to me much of what I have seen happening as cities throughout the world are beginning to change their shape and behaviour.

I have become increasingly interested in Urban Design and so called “Liveable cities” in recent years, since spending 2011, one of the happiest years of my life, living in the centre of Montpellier in the South of France.  Wherever I went in Montpellier I was aware of the efforts that the (socialist) City and Departmental Councils were taking to make us residents happy – I found myself boring visiting friends pointing these things out. So it was a pleasant surprise to me to realise that there was a whole science to urban design for happiness and this book is an interesting introduction. 

Place de La Comedie, Montpellier City Centre.
Cars were removed from the whole city centre and a large area which had been a massive car park was recreated as an enormously popular public Square and Gardens which are well used by the city, business and the citizens. It is now served by frequent trams and the SNCF/TGV station is just a few hundred meters away. Footfall in local shops and cafés increased enormously.

The book is written by a very well informed Canadian journalist, and its style is largely anecdotal and easy to read. However, it is very well referenced and there is no doubt about the provenance of the underpinning information. There is an inevitable North American slant to the book, but the European, and indeed global, dimension is well covered.

I found the bigger picture presented in this book valuable. For that reason I hope other cycle campaigners will find it worth a read, or at least appreciate my digested read. 'Happy Cities' explains where cycling and walkability fit into the much bigger picture of the sort of urban designs and planning we need for the next century. In cities where councils already get the point that this book makes, cycle infrastructure is already a priority. City councils that repeatedly fail to make even the simplest of improvements to cycle infrastructure (like my own in Southampton) are still living in an old paradigm where motorised transport is the lifeblood of the city and all other needs are subservient to that.

Happiness and the City Council

The basic premise of the book is that the job of the city council is to ensure that citizens are Safe, Healthy and Happy; everything else (e.g. economic development, social support, the transport system, the architecture of the city centre, support for the disadvantaged) is part of the above.

Montgomery then looks at what makes us happy – he treats the science of happiness as a specialism of economics, and drawing on many examples from Sociology, Psychology, Economics and Urban Design he goes on to conclude that the main contributors to happiness are good social contact and a feeling that you contribute something worthwhile to the world.  Perhaps surprisingly increased wealth only contributes to happiness up to the point that a person earns the average for their society – above that it can have a negative correlation. Things that make people unhappy are poverty, loneliness, poor health, fear and a feeling of lack of control of their lives. There is also a very strong inverse correlation between happiness and time spent commuting; people who walk to work most often have the highest life satisfaction.
From Happy City (c) Penguin

Why Cities became Rundown in the Post-war period

At the beginning of the last century the majority of people lived in communities of some kind or another, varying from villages through towns to cities (and villages within cities).  No-one can deny that there were many aspects of life in these days that contributed to unhappiness, but also, the author argues there were aspects of these lives, to do with community, trust and a sense of belonging, that made people happy. However, industrialisation made the lives of some city dwellers overcrowded, unhealthy and undignified; the more well off moved to select areas of the city and cities became segregated.  The middle classes built new areas around the town, suburbia, with less pollution, less noise and some pleasing greenery around their houses. Tram and bus services of the period served them well.

Then came the car.  Carlton Reid’s excellent book “Roads were not Built for Cars” tells this history, which is repeated here, of how rich car owners and their automobile clubs lobbied government and used their wealth and influence to change the ownership and purpose of roads in just a few decades. By the post war period cars had become the rightful owners of the road, and other users were increasingly banished and intimidated, and main roads were pedestrian free (no jaywalking) for “their” safety. Roads then spilt communities.

An immediate consequence of the increasingly affordable car was that people started to move further away from the city in search of bigger, more private affordable housing, and coupled with population explosion we saw the rapid growth of “sprawl” – suburbs or “exurbs” with no centres. And as their housing is much less dense than in cities and the original suburbs, everything is some distance away.  People living in these places are almost inevitably forced to drive for even the simples of needs – work, the gym, the shops, the doctor, the hairdresser, the pub etc.

As better off people moved out of the cities they took their tax revenues to out of town areas, leaving cities to survive on the taxes paid by the poorer people left behind.

Perhaps North America has suffered worse than most of Europe from sprawl. The book spends much space on this topic and and on the witchcraft of Zoning Codes which prevent North Americans from changing the layout of their sprawl, for example to build some kind of a commercial and social centre to make an area liveable. But we are not exempt in Europe – I know plenty of people in the greater Southampton and Portsmouth area who have no access to even the most basic facilities without using their cars.


People who use cars to access all their needs clog up their roads and in particular the roads into the cities where most of them work. They demand ever better, ever faster, ever wider roads to accommodate their needs. In particular they demand that the city councils (in cities where they do not pay tax, as they live outside the city) improve their transport infrastructure, at the cost of the residents who do pay local tax, so that they can get to work faster. 

There is a clear fairness issue here. In Southampton where I live, the transport budget is permanently stretched to meet the needs of mainly outsiders using the roads, and there is never enough money left to build good infrastructure to allow locals to get around by cycle of to re-join up the communities that are split by busy, noisy, polluted roads. The citizens of these main roadside communities are exposed to illegal levels of pollution and suffer significant health problems. But the car drivers from suburban Hampshire are not paying Southampton for this.

What Makes People Happy?

The final, and possibly most important contribution of the book is to look at what can be done to address the problems caused by the car and sprawl.

The Montgomery answer is that we all need to live closer to our places of work and to the services that we need, and this requires us to live in higher density housing – cities. But these cities do not have to be the overcrowded, dirty, polluted, noisy, crime-ridden, unfriendly, high-rise and slum dwellings of history. He looks at examples of good practice from a number of famous “happy cities”, Vancouver, Copenhagen, Paris and even Bogotá (who would have thought it?), and includes recent developments in London and New York.

Streets for people: Copenhagen’s Kompagnistrædet before and after pedestrianisation. (Jan Gehl and Lars Gemzøe/ Gehl Architects Urban Quality Consultants.) From the Happy City  (c) Penguin

Things that make people happy about cities are:

Good public transport:  Happy cities have the main routes delivered by excellent high speed public transport (Light railways, trams, tubes, or even busses with dedicated traffic free lanes), connected to a network of more local services with a frequency such that people do not need to consult a timetable (at least every 15 minutes) – with live information systems to allow people to know the time of the next service.

Pedestrian and cycle infrastructure that is prioritised (or appears to be prioritised) over private motorised traffic.  Cycling, in particular, can allow people the independence to get around cities quickly and efficiently, and they will happily prefer to cycle than drive if the infrastructure supports them. (And remember that a tram-load of people or the equivalent number of cyclists take up far less street space and create far less pollution, noise and danger to the rest of the citizens than the equivalent motorised transport).

Green Space: In a city in which most of the citizens live in relatively high density accommodation it is important to provide space – parks, gardens - that provide quiet and open space for people for all sorts of use, from skateboarding through to sitting and people watching.  Copenhagen even involved their “down-and-outs” in designing the space they wanted to allow them to get drunk without offending others!  (Southampton has wonderful parks and the Common – and the excellent use that is made of these spaces is central to the Southampton experience.)

 The Emerald Necklace in Boston: Green Space was designed into the city as a set of linear parks. Restored in the 1980's to make the city more liveable. Other cities are trying to retrofit such spaces.
Quiet: The noise of engines, background traffic, sirens, horns and people behaving loudly or aggressively are all know to put people on edge.  People are happier without this noise.  Calming traffic, traffic free areas and more green space all contribute to greater quiet and general happiness.

Community and trust: People feel happiest in places they feel they belong, and people feel most comfortable amongst people they know (even if by that we mean that they pass on the street every morning).  According to Montgomery, "our trust in neighbours, police, governments and even total strangers has a huge influence on happiness, and when it comes to life satisfaction, relationships with other people beat income, hands down". 

Of course, streets that have been fully fashioned for motor vehicles do not make the best places casual meetings and developing the sort of nodding acquaintances that lead to trust in a neighbourhood.  He refers to the work of Sadik-Khan (Streetfight) in New York where they showed that "reducing the number of lanes on carefully selected streets or closing them entirely not only provided pedestrian space and breathed new life into neighborhoods, but also actually improved traffic. Simply painting part of a street to make it into a plaza, bike, or bus lane not only made the street safer, it also improved traffic and increased bike and pedestrian foot traffic and helped local businesses to prosper".

Equality and Fairness: This is excellently summed up in a quote from the book, attributed to ‘Enrique Peñalosa, then mayor of Bogotá, Columbia: One of the requirements for happiness is equality. Maybe not equality of income, but equality of quality of life and, more than that, an environment where people don’t feel inferior, where people don’t feel excluded.”

So if we accept this point, the city must be seen to invest as much in public infrastructure (green space, meeting space, walkability, public transport) for the poor as it does for the better-off.

My take home message from this book

The population of the world is expanding fast, and at the same time we need to reduce greenhouse gases to slow global warming.

City dwellers produce around 70% less greenhouse gases than their rural neighbours or sprawl dwellers (due to less use of transport, and the economies of smaller denser housing, and the economies of providing services to them). Blessed be the city dwellers.

People who live away from towns and cities still mostly have to travel to work in those cities. The longer a person’s commute time the unhappier and more stressed they will be. Upon them shall be a curse.

People who need to use roads lots spend lots of time in traffic jams, and lobby road providers to improve the network – the budget for roads will never be enough to catch up with the demand or the induced demand when new roads are created (the M25 effect!).

There is an import lack of equity (in terms of share of the public purse) between those who live in cities, who:

  • need less roads;
  • often use financially viable public transport, walk or cycle;
  • produce less greenhouse gasses;
  • for whom providing public services is much more efficient

compared to those who rely on cars for transport who:

  • clog up the cities in which other people live with three lane highways carving up residential areas;
  • cause pollution affecting other peoples' children;
  • demand car-parking taking up much of the potential public space in cities;
  • need greater financing for provision of distributed public services.

Investing in well designed city environments with walkable neighbourhoods, good cycle infrastructure and minimal through roads for cars makes for happier citizens and is a good blueprint for the future of humankind.

Thanks as ever to my partner Su White @suukii for her contributions.

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