Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Happy City

I'm now in the second half of my 2014 challenge to read a book a week and I'm slightly ahead of pace, which is fortuitous as the next three books in my queue range from 450 to 900 pages.

Of this year's (so far) 28 completed books, the tome I just finished is the only one I wish I could force all of my fellow citizens to read. Those of us interested in urbanism have been schooled in the benefits of shaping our cities to a scale suited for humans rather than designing them to facilitate motorized traffic. Human-scaled cities, in which the tyranny of cars is minimized so that residents feel comfortable navigating public space, can reduce pollution, improve health, and save money. In Happy City, Canadian writer Charles Montgomery focuses on another benefit that is often overlooked: good urban design can make us happier.

bike rack, St. Paul, Minn.
Drawing on the findings of psychologists and sociologists as well as designers, architects, planners and philosophers, Montgomery considers both the large and small elements of design contributing to well-being. That happiness is increased when the view out the window is a lovely body of water rather than a cement wall will come as no surprise. But quite likely, very few people are aware that the arrangement of windows and doors in buildings will impact their comfort and enjoyment when walking by at street level, or that the height and layout of living spaces can influence residents' relationships with each other.

As in most books and articles touching on the movement known as New Urbanism, suburbia does not get much love in Happy City. However, Montgomery refrains from vilifying sprawl. He notes that some people enjoy suburban living and he does not condemn that preference. The family with the one-acre lot on a cul de sac in Rockville is just as entitled to their happiness as are the apartment denizens of Dupont Circle (my example). However, as other writers have argued, Montgomery agrees that urban dwellers should not be subsidizing the inefficiencies of sprawl, and the gap between supply and demand of housing in walkable communities needs to be reduced so that this choice is available to more who want it.

Montgomery travels the world to highlight places where human-scaled design interventions have met with utilitarian success such as Bogota, Vancouver, Portland, London, and, of course, Copenhagen [note to self: must stop googling Danish immigration policies]. Ultimately, this is a call for citizen activism (with a supporting website), to inspire neighbors and "citadins" that the road to happiness is more easily walked together.

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