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Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design Hardcover – November 12, 2013

4.4 out of 5 stars 62 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Can cities make us better people? Is the suburban American Dream really a nightmare? In this lively and accessible book, journalist Montgomery (The Shark God) marshals decades of interdisciplinary research into an effective argument against what he calls the dispersed city—the modern city/suburb designed around the automobile. The result is a succession of arguments meant to debunk individualism and show how citizens thrive on contact with others. In Montgomery's hands, urban design proves not only exciting, but integral to our future. He persuasively demonstrates that designing cities with social beings in mind can make them more pleasant places to live, and shows why suburbs are experiencing higher crime, as well as a significant happiness deficit. Furthermore, this passionate jeremiad argues that urban design often reinforces inequality, and Montgomery includes useful prescriptions for creating what he calls the fair city, as well as addressing issues like gentrification. For Montgomery, the city is a happiness project that exists in part to corral our conviviality and channel it productively. Though Montgomery's argument may seem strange at first, the book will likely make you a believer. 68 b&w illus. Agent: Rebecca Gradinger, Fletcher & Co. (Nov.)

From Booklist

What is considered the happiest city on earth? Improbably, it just might be Bogotá, Colombia, where drug lords ruled, bicycles now roll, and pedestrians stroll in a city with a mayor committed to transforming his town’s image and its people’s lives. What’s the secret to his success? Not surprisingly, restricting traffic plays a huge part in Bogotá’s livability, but banning cars isn’t the be-all and end-all to urban bliss. As Montgomery illustrates through vibrant discussions of the physics, physiology, and psychology of urban, suburban, and exurban dwellers, multiple factors must coalesce before a city, large or small, can achieve perfection. All of which may become terribly muddled as climate change and resource depletion stress urban centers to an untenable tipping point. Touting extensive research tempered by anecdotal examples, Montgomery enumerates the mistakes made not only by the people who plan and govern cities but also by the people who live in them, and he offers cautious reassurance that it’s not too late to turn things around for all cities. --Carol Haggas

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (November 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374168237
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374168230
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #151,437 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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As you might expect, the idea that people can be happy in a city doesn't come from the First World--at least today's. "The man who is tired of London is tired of life." --Samuel Johnson.

It comes from Enrique and Guillermo Penalosa from Bogota, Colombia. And the amazing thing is that Enrique Penalosa (past mayor of Bogota) is a career politician.

Find out what generally makes people happy in a city, then construct the city that way. What an idea. Again as you might expect, what makes people happy is generally NOT what said people think will make them happy. Think of the number of times that you thought a new thing--house, car, music player, large screen TV--would make you happy. And then things were pretty much the same within a couple of weeks of getting said thing.

What makes you happy is more likely to be a continuing series of experiences, and most likely experiences with other people. If the way your neighborhood is constructed and managed isolates you from people, you'll have fewer experiences and less happiness. But uncontrolled interaction might be just as bad as no interaction. Details matter.

This book is merely an introduction to the idea, but lots of us need the introduction, to learn another way of thinking about the subject. It's only about eleven bucks for your Kindle or Kindle app--buy it and read it.
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Format: Hardcover
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Charles Montgomery's 'Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design'

The main argument: The modern city owes much of its current design to two major trends or `movements' that have emerged since the time of the industrial revolution. The first trend traces back to the industrial revolution itself, when the appearance of smoke-billowing factories (and egregiously dirty slums) necessitated new solutions to the problem of how to organize city life. The answer--still reflected in cities all over the world--was to compartmentalize functions, such that industrial areas, shopping areas, office areas, and living areas were separated off from one another into distinct blocks of the city.

The second trend in urban design took full hold in the post-war era, with the rise of the suburbs. In a sense, the suburbs represent a continuation and intensification of the compartmentalization movement, as the living areas of the upper classes were separated-off still further from the other areas of the city--out into sprawling districts miles away (as automobiles made it possible for certain city dwellers to escape to an idealized haven away from the hustle and bustle).

While the suburban movement has had the bulk of its impact on the landscape outside of the city proper, the city itself has not been spared of its influence. For indeed, the city was gutted of many of the inhabitants that formerly occupied it; and, what's more, it has been reshaped by the roads and freeways introduced to shuttle-in the suburbanites from their faraway destinations.
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Format: Hardcover
Montgomery's argument is founded on the principle that the only possible form of (correct and legitimate) happiness is to be found in the city, hence the necessity of making our cities happy places to live in. He first establishes his urban insularity by polarizing the country into good cities versus bad everything else, dismissing the idea that diverse places can bring diverse forms of fulfillment. He proceeds to obfuscate the very notion of what a suburb is (actually difficult to define as former suburbs are now integrated into cities, with all of their assets), choosing instead the worst American suburbs as representative of the lot.

Nevertheless, I recommend Happy Cities as a lively book filled with fresh and unexpected examples of what the best cities in the world can offer. The author captures what to me is the essential feature of the city, which is its graceful and dynamic ad hoc choreography. Montgomery gives a detailed and vivid description of public transportation systems that serve the whole gamut of city-dwellers. In Paris, you are never more than five minutes away from a transport option. You can step on a bus, stride along the sidewalk to find a near-by metro station, alight and rent a bicycle, turn it in and take a stroll through the park. Any such network does indeed create a joyful tie of solidarity between users.

The question remains: For whom this attractive situation? Who is left out and why? Is it a failure of planning and imagination, really? Whether you live in a city or not, I expect you might feel something is missing in Montgomery's idealized picture.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Throughly enjoyed this book. A lot of urban design books are written in a dry manner; Montgomery does a great job keeping attention through his prose. The stories were relevant and on point, if not a bit recycled for other sources. His assessment is strong, but you couldn't call it objective. He uses many points in the book to assert his position, mainly around how awful cars are (which, while I don't disagree, is getting old as a rant in these kinds of books).

I highly recommend it for any urban studies nerd, and would encourage you to additionally read Walkable City and Street Smarts as companion pieces. Between those three books, they do a great job of giving you the history, the science, the statistics, and the possibilities for the future of smart, happy, walkable cities.
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