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HAPPY CITY: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery

  • Written by  Jonathan Wright
  • Published in Books
HAPPY CITY: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery
01 Feb
When writing about happy cities, the first and most difficult task is to define happiness. Charles Montgomery, for all his forays into philosophy, economics and brain science, never really provides an adequate solution

He talks about the perennial ‘tug-of-war between earthly needs and transcendent hopes, between private pleasures and public goods’, but that’s rather platitudinous and doesn’t really get us very far.

There are, however, some basics when it comes to the more modest goal of making life a tad jollier in our cities and Montgomery’s recipe seems reasonable enough. The city should aim to maximise joy and minimise hardship; it should foster health rather than sickness; it should distribute space and services equitably; and it should promote bonds between friends, families and strangers.

This all sounds lovely, but how is it to be achieved? Montgomery is clear about one thing: the prevailing urban paradigm – with its suburban sprawl, isolation, fragmentation and dispersal – is a disaster. We’ve lost trust in our fellow citizens, we don’t feel safe and our sense of neighbourliness and community is moribund.

Montgomery’s remedies rely on two main strategies: slowing down and coming closer together. Enter, then, talk of green spaces (from big parks to community gardens), better public transport, creative approaches to residential accommodation and policies that make wandering along our streets more pleasurable. We should turn cities into places where vibrant public life and communal solidarity can thrive. We should stop and have a chat. We shouldn’t treat our homes as bunkers. Cars are bad; bikes are good.

This all sounds a bit Utopian but, mercifully, Montgomery peppers his text with realism. He doesn’t expect enlightenment and bonhomie to fall from the clear blue (or pollution-choked) sky. On the contrary, he has no problem with ‘appealing to pure self-interest’. People should be rewarded for making the right choices about how they move about in cities, and interventionist governmental policy is key when creating spaces that ‘lure us closer together’. He provides many examples, drawn from his own travels, of how this can work.

The real difficulty, however – and Montgomery recognises this – is that improving a small section of a city is much easier than transforming an entire metropolis. It’s usually the richer and more tourist-friendly areas that have improvements lavished upon them. This can dent the broader project of renewal and reinvention. Rents rise, the privileged residents pull up their drawbridges and we end up with isolated examples of what idealised city life can look like.

It takes great imagination (and more than a little optimism) to posit grander solutions, although the process of ‘sprawl repair’ has its merits. Why not put shops in business parks? Why not turn urban highways into safer main streets with narrower lanes and crosswalks? Why not adopt a model in which communities are conceptualised on the human scale, with shops, homes and facilities all within easy reach? I wish any city the best of luck in finding the money or the political will to achieve all of this.

Montgomery’s book is well intentioned, well researched and well written. There are some outstanding sections, not least his reminder that there’s a difference between density of population and overcrowding. If you provide sufficient quiet public spaces to which people can escape from the hustle and the bustle, then the urban experience becomes much more tolerable.

I also like his point that making things pretty isn’t a panacea. So long as you’re in a safe, well-designed environment that allows you to go about your business, then how it looks is of secondary importance. This rings true. Some of my favourite places in the world’s busiest cities wouldn’t win any beauty contests.

Montgomery is therefore on the right track, although I do have one concern. I’m not particularly misanthropic, but the prospect of people walking more slowly down Oxford Street or even, dread the thought, saying hello and initiating an idle conversation fills me with horror. Some of us rather enjoy the anonymity of the big city.

There’s a balance to be struck. I’m all for wiping out crime and socio-economic inequality, encouraging people to leave their cars at home, building better houses and pursuing communal causes, but please don’t ask me to join the hand-clapping gang surrounding a third-rate busker. I’m not sure what happiness is, but I know what it isn’t.

HAPPY CITY: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery, Penguin, £16.99

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