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Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design Paperback – October 7, 2014
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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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.) --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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 --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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The problem with this book is that it stacks the deck improperly. It takes the worst of sprawl and compares it to the best of the anti-sprawl efforts. For example, we get to meet a nice fellow with a two hour commute. Each way. On horribly congested roads. The obvious fact that this makes his life miserable is made painfully clear. But is this necessarily a consequence of sprawl? The San Francisco Bay Area has some of the strictest housing regulations in the nation, which effectively mandate that the city won't have enough room for those who wish to live there. Thus, people wind up living far from the city and having horrid commutes. That's the nature of the popularity of the Bay Area combined with heavy-handed regulation.
His vision is pretty simple. People are alienated with their neighbors in sprawl, because they never walk around and get to know each other. Instead, they drive to other giant places, where they rarely do anything but shop. How much better it would be to meet in community parks and squares and interact?
Oddly enough, by the way, this has not been my experience. I have lived in faceless apartments and condos and sprawl's single family homes. Every time I've lived in single family homes, I've had neighbors who have become friends. Every time I've been in apartments or condos I've felt isolated. Sprawl seems good for social interactions in my experience. Well, as long as it's not accompanied by 2 hour commutes. But again, that's an extreme outlier to say the least.
Something pretty close to his ideal community exists in South Beach near Miami. It should be paradise. People walk and bike to work. Everything is close together, so there are tons of great shops and restaurants. But there is a dark side. The cost of housing is through the roof, in fact I'm not even sure if it's in the same solar system any more. Undistinguished single family homes for US$1 million. Condos for $500,000. Rents for even the most laughably pathetic apartments well over $1,000 a month. Parking is almost impossible to find and as a result the narrow roads are constantly clogged with cars. Congestion is basically 24/7. This is not a happy city. In fact, I'd say its misery index is dismayingly close to the poor Bay Area guy with the two hour commute.
The author makes the point that New Urbanist ideas are effectively outlawed in many cities. He particularly hits regulations governing a minimum amount of parking. Since I'm at heart a Libertarian/Anarchist, I have great sympathy for this approach.
So I tried a different approach, looking up Houston, the city with no zoning and only light land use regulation. How did the New Urbanism fare there? Turns out there are pockets of it, but most developers and housing buyers prefer sprawl. What it looks like to me is that sprawl works just fine if adequate roads are built for it to. Sprawl is sufficiently popular in Houston that private covenants in developments often enforce it to protect property values. At the same time, New Urbanist developments exist with higher density, and their covenants perpetuate those principles. Everyone gets what they want, which seems to me like the greatest secret of happiness.
The author makes use of third world examples, but unfortunately they are just not going to work for people living in the USA. You can ban cars from the city if 4/5 of your residents can't afford cars. You can't do it if 90%+ of people use cars to get around.
Though “Happy City” tends to belabor points with excess verbiage, its pace is redeemed by a wealth of interesting content like the following:
"Even the smallest of private cars takes up about 150 square feet of road space when standing still. That’s thirty times the space used by a person standing, and 7.5 times the space used by a person on a bicycle or on a bus. The numbers diverge exponentially as we start moving. Someone driving alone in a car moving at thirty miles per hour takes up twenty times as much space as someone riding on a bus at the same speed."
“How would we build differently,” Montgomery asks, “if we could chart the connection between the designs of our cities and the map of happiness?” He starts by establishing that “the greatest of human satisfaction lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people.” And yet, the proliferation of “sprawlscapes [in] modern North America”—characterized by cul de sacs and strip malls rather than dense neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential use—combined with the fact that many jobs still sit near urban centers, means people spend more and more time stuck in their cars and deprived of the opportunity for casual contact with neighbors and the feelings of belonging and trust such interactions produce.
The current landscape of our suburbs makes parents “sicker, fatter, more frustrated, socially isolated, and broke,” while simultaneously depriving children of the community, independence, and prosocial busyness that comes with walkability.
Meanwhile, those who reside in downtowns and neighborhoods close to them (dubbed “streetcar suburbs”) deal with commuters slicing through their world, making conversation-stopping noise, displacing public gathering spaces, “clogg[ing] the main streets and slow[ing public transportation].”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, until relatively recently, it wasn’t.
We got here, Montgomery says thanks to “the twentieth century’s dual urban legacy: First, the city had been gradually reoriented around private automobiles. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatized.” He looks at cities like Copenhagen that have made great strides (pun intended) toward improving walkability and concludes: “If a poor and broken city such as Bogota can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely it’s possible to apply happy city principles to the wounds of wealthy places.” After all, “Paris’s most glorious public gardens were built for the enjoyment of a ruling elite but now provide hedonic delights for all.”
“Happy City” includes a host of suggestions for reform, including “neighborhood upcycling” which entails making more room for “people of different incomes … and tolerance for proximity” in cities. When changes in zoning and building laws allow for conversion of garages to cottages and more: “Th[e] vast majority of ... single-family lots in the city can legally include at least three households.” Streets can be “pedestrianized” to create public spaces, like when New York City closed Broadway to traffic near Times Square or a group of neighbors reclaimed an intersection now called Share-It Square in Portland, Oregon. “All the real estate now used to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles,” Montgomery points out, “is public, and it can be used any way we decide.”
Other “happy redesigns” include “bike lanes, traffic calming, good transit, and ... bylaws that ensure vibrant commercial streets.” Innovations called “sprawl repair,” look at filling in those yawning Target parking lots and, “‘returning cities to a human scale.’” There are, Montgomery says, “a thousand ways to retrofit proximity and complexity into cities.”
We just have to resolve to do it.
“We have been seduced by the wrong technologies,” Montgomery concludes: “[T]he struggle for the happy city is going to be long and difficult. The broken city lives in the rituals and practices of planners, engineers, and developers. It lives in law and code, and in concrete and asphalt. It lives in our own habits, too.” But “[i]t is not too late to rebuild the balance of life in our neighborhoods and cities.”