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Charles Montgomery’s Happy City will revolutionize the way we think about urban life.
After decades of unchecked sprawl, more people than ever are moving back to the city. Dense urban living has been prescribed as a panacea for the environmental and resource crises of our time. But is it better or worse for our happiness? Are subways, sidewalks and condo towers an improvement on the car-dependence of sprawl?
The award-winning journalist Charles Montgomery finds answers to such questions at the intersection between urban design and the emerging science of happiness, during an exhilarating journey through some of the world’s most dynamic cities. He meets the visionary mayor who introduced a “sexy” bus to ease status anxiety in Bogotá; the architect who brought the lessons of medieval Tuscan hill towns to modern-day New York City; the activist who turned Paris’s urban freeways into beaches; and an army of American suburbanites who have hacked the design of their own streets and neighborhoods.
Rich with new insights from psychology, neuroscience and Montgomery’s own urban experiments, Happy City reveals how our cities can shape our thoughts as well as our behavior. The message is as surprising as it is hopeful: by retrofitting cities and our own lives for happiness, we can tackle the urgent challenges of our age. The happy city can save the world--and all of us can help build it.
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Charles Montgomery is a journalist and urban experimentalist whose writings on cities, psychology, culture, and history have appeared in magazines and journals around the world. His first book, The Last Heathen, won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction. Among his numerous awards is a Citation of Merit from the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society for outstanding contribution towards public understanding of climate change science. Montgomery was an original team member of the BMW Guggenheim Lab. At the Museum of Vancouver and elsewhere, he creates experiments that help citizens transform their relationships with each other and their cities. He has advised and lectured planners, students, and urban decision-makers across Canada, the USA and England. Find him at www.charlesmontgomery.ca and www.thehappycity.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1. The Mayor of Happy
There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need only do inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself … The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.
—Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building
I chased the politician through the bowels of a dull cement office block on the edge of a twelve-lane freeway. Everything about him suggested urgency. He hollered with the hurried fervor of a preacher. He wore the kind of close-trimmed beard favored by men who don’t like to waste time shaving. He jogged through the building’s basement parking deck in a long-legged canter, like a center forward charging for a long pass.
Two bodyguards trotted behind him, their pistols jostling in holsters. There was nothing remarkable about that, given his profession—and his locale. Enrique Peñalosa was a perennial politician on yet another campaign, and this was Bogotá, a city with a spectacular reputation for kidnappings and assassination. What was unusual was this: Peñalosa didn’t climb into the armored SUV typical of most public figures in Colombia. Instead, he hopped on a knobby-tired mountain bike and quickly cranked his way up a ramp into the searing Andean sunlight. Then he was off, jumping curbs and potholes, riding one-handed, weaving across the pavement, and barking into his cell phone while his pin-striped trousers flapped in the breeze. His bodyguards, a photographer, and I all pedaled madly behind, like a throng of teenagers in the wake of a rock star.
A few years earlier, this ride would have been a radical and—in the opinion of many Bogotanos—suicidal act. If you wanted to be assaulted, asphyxiated by exhaust, or run over, Bogotá’s streets were the place to be. But now it was 2007, and Peñalosa insisted that things had changed. We would be safe. The city had gotten happier, thanks to his plan. Happier—that was the word he used over and over again, as though he owned it.
Young women giggled as he passed. Overall-clad laborers waved.
“Mayor! Mayor!” a few of them shouted in Spanish, though it had been six years since Peñalosa had held that job, and his campaign to regain it had barely begun. He waved back with his phone hand.
“Buenos días, hermosa!” he said to the girls.
“¿Cómo le va?” he answered the men.
“Hola, amigo!” he offered to anyone who looked his way.
“We’re living an experiment,” he finally yelled back at me as he pocketed his cell phone. “We might not be able to fix the economy. We might not be able to make everyone as rich as Americans. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier.”
There it was, the declaration I have seen bring tears to so many eyes with its promise of urban revolution and redemption.
* * *
It’s been six years since my ride with the Mayor of Happy, but the memory has remained with me, as vivid as the Andean sun. That was the day the journey began.
You may never have heard of Enrique Peñalosa. You may not have been among the crowds that gave him a hero’s welcome in New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Lagos, or Mexico City over the last decade. You may never have seen him raise his arms like an evangelist or holler his philosophy over the noise of a hundred idling car engines. But his grand experiment and his even grander rhetoric inspire an urbanist fervor wherever he goes. Peñalosa has become one of the central figures in a movement that is changing the structure and soul of cities around the world.
I first saw Peñalosa work his rhetorical magic back in the spring of 2006. The United Nations had just announced that some day in the following months, one more child would be born in an urban hospital or a migrant would stumble into a metropolitan shantytown, and from that moment on, more than half the world’s people would be living in cities. Hundreds of millions more were on their way. By 2030 almost five billion of us will be urban. That spring, Habitat, the UN’s agency for human settlements, called thousands of mayors, engineers, bureaucrats, and do-gooders together for the World Urban Forum. The delegates met in a harborside convention center in Vancouver to figure out how to save the world’s exploding cities from disaster.
The world had little inkling of the great recession slouching on the horizon, yet the prognosis was bleak. The problem? On the one hand, cities were pumping out most of the world’s pollution and 80 percent of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. On the other, all predictions suggested that cities were going to be slammed by the effects of climate change, from heat waves and water scarcity to waves of migrants running from droughts, floods, and water wars. The experts agreed that cities would bear more than three-quarters of the cost of adapting to global warming. They would be short on energy, tax revenue, and jobs. There seemed to be no way they were going to be able to help citizens meet the goals of security and prosperity that urbanization had always seemed to promise. The gathering was sobering.
But the mood changed when Peñalosa took the podium. He told the mayors that there was hope, that the great migration was not a threat—no!—it was a tremendous opportunity to reinvent urban life. As poor cities doubled or tripled in size, they could avoid the mistakes that rich cities had made. They could offer their citizens lives that were better, stronger, freer, and more joyful than those offered by most cities of the day. But to accomplish this, they would have to completely rethink their beliefs about what cities are for. They would have to let go of a century of thought about city building. They would have to let go of some of their dreams.
To make his point, Peñalosa told a story.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, Bogotá had become a truly horrible place to live—one of the very worst on earth. Overwhelmed with refugees; seared by a decades-old civil war and sporadic terrorism in the form of grenades and firebombs (deadly “explosive potatoes” being the most common means of attack); and hobbled by traffic, pollution, poverty, and dysfunction, the Colombian capital was regarded both at home and abroad as a living hell.
When Peñalosa ran for the mayor’s seat back in 1997, he refused to make the promises doled out by so many politicians. He was not going to make everyone richer. Forget the dream of becoming as wealthy as Americans: it would take generations to catch up to the gringos, even if the urban economy caught fire and burned blue for a century. The dream of riches, Peñalosa complained, served only to make Bogotans feel bad.
“If we defined our success just in terms of income per capita, we would have to accept ourselves as second- or third-rate societies—as a bunch of losers,” he said. No, the city needed a new goal. Peñalosa promised neither a car in every garage nor a socialist revolution. His promise was simple. He was going to make Bogotans happier.
“And what are our needs for happiness?” he asked. “We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.”
Ironically, in giving up the chase for the American dream, Peñalosa was invoking a goal set out in the American Constitution: by pursuing a different kind of happiness, Bogotans, despite their relatively meager paychecks, really could beat the gringos.
These days, the world is not lacking for happiness gurus. Some insist that spiritual practice is the answer. Others tell us that we must simply ask the universe for prosperity, that we can get closer to God by getting richer, and get richer by inching closer to God. But Peñalosa did not call for mass counseling or religious indoctrination or state-funded courses in positive psychology. He did not preach the law of attraction or the tenets of transformative wealth. This was a gospel of transformative urbanism. The city itself could be a device for happiness. Life could be improved, even amid economic doldrums, by changing the shapes and systems that defined urban existence.
Peñalosa attributed an almost transcendent power to a certain kind of urbanity. “Most things that people buy in stores give them a lot of satisfaction the moment they buy them,” Peñalosa told me. “But after a few days, that satisfaction decreases, and months later, it completely melts away. But great public space is a kind of magical good. It never ceases to yield happiness. It’s almost happiness itself.” The humble sidewalk, the park, the bike path, and the bus were suddenly elevated to the psycho-spiritual realm.
Peñalosa insisted that like most cities, Bogotá had been left deeply wounded by 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. Cars and mobile vendors took over public plazas and sidewalks. People had walled or fenced in what were once public parks. In an age where even most of the poor had televisions, common civic space was disregarded and degraded.
This reorganization was both unfair—only one in five families even owned a car—and cruel. Urban residents had been denied the opportunity to enjoy the city’s simplest daily pleasures: walking on convivial streets; sitting around in public; talking; gazing at grass, water, falling leaves, and other people. And playing: children had largely disappeared from Bogotá’s streets—not because of the fear of gunfire or abduction, but because the streets had been rendered dangerous by sheer speed. When any parent shouted, “Watch out!” everyone in Bogotá knew that a child was in danger of being run over. So Peñalosa’s first and most defining act as mayor was to declare war: not on crime or drugs or poverty, but on private cars.
“A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both,” he announced.
He then threw out the city’s ambitious highway expansion plan and instead poured his budget into hundreds of miles of bike paths; a vast new chain of parks and pedestrian plazas; and a network of new libraries, schools, and day-care centers. He built the city’s first rapid transit system, using buses instead of trains. He hiked gas taxes and banned drivers from commuting by car more than three times a week. I’ll discuss the details later, but the thing to understand here is that this program redesigned the experience of city living for millions of people, and it was an utter rejection of the philosophies that have guided city builders around the world for more than half a century. It was the opposite of the city that North American laws, habits, the real estate industry, financing arrangements, and development ideologies have favored. In particular, it was the opposite of the vision that millions of middle-class people around the world have chased to suburbia.
In the third year of his term Peñalosa challenged Bogotans to participate in an experiment, a día sin carro. As of dawn on February 24, 2000, all private cars were banned from city streets for the day. More than eight hundred thousand vehicles sat still that Thursday. Buses were jam-packed and taxis hard to come by, but hundreds of thousands of people followed Peñalosa’s example and hit the streets under their own steam, walking, cycling, skating to work and school.
It was the first day in four years that nobody was killed in traffic. Hospital admissions fell by almost a third. The toxic haze over the city thinned. People still got to work, and schools reported normal attendance. Bogotans enjoyed the day so much that they voted to make it a yearly affair, and to ban all private cars during rush hour every day by 2015. People told pollsters that they were more optimistic about city life than they had been in years.
Peñalosa recounts this story with all the fervor of Martin Luther King on the Washington Mall, and with similar effect. I saw three thousand people at the World Urban Forum leap up from their chairs and cheer in response. UN statisticians brought their hands together despite themselves. Indian economists beamed and loosened their ties. Senegalese delegates shook and danced in their carnival-colored wraps. Mexican architects whistled. My heart beat faster, too. Peñalosa seemed to be affirming what so many urban thinkers are sure of, but very rarely have the guts or the audacity to say. The city is a means to a way of life. It can be a reflection of all our best selves. It can be whatever we want it to be.
It can change, and change dramatically.
Is urban design really powerful enough to make or break happiness? The question deserves consideration because the happy city message is taking root around the world. Since Peñalosa’s three-year term in office—consecutive terms are illegal in Colombia—delegations from dozens of cities have landed in Bogotá to study its transformation. Peñalosa and his younger brother, Guillermo, the city’s former parks manager, were called to advise cities on every continent. While the elder proselytized from Shanghai to Jakarta to Lagos, the younger hit Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Toronto. While Guillermo whipped up hundreds of activists in Portland, Enrique was urging planners in Los Angeles to let traffic become so unbearable that drivers simply abandoned their cars. In 2006 Enrique Peñalosa was the talk of Manhattan after he announced to crowds of gridlock-obsessed New Yorkers they should ban vehicles entirely from Broadway. Three years later, the impossible vision began to come to life around Times Square. The happy city had gone global.
The Peñalosa brothers are far from alone in the happy city crusade. The movement has its roots in the antimodernist foment of the 1960s and has gradually drawn architects, neighborhood activists, public health experts, transportation engineers, network theorists, and politicians into a battle for the shape and soul of cities—a confrontation that is finally reaching critical mass. They have torn down freeways in Seoul and San Francisco and Milwaukee. They have experimented with the height, shape, and facades of buildings. They have turned the black top of suburban shopping malls into mini-villages. They have reconfigured entire towns to better suit children. They have torn down backyard fences and reclaimed neighborhood intersections. They are reorganizing the systems that hold cities together and rewriting the rules that dictate the shapes and functions of our buildings. Some of these people aren’t even aware that they are part of the same movement, but together they are aiming a wrecking ball at many of the places we have spent the last half century building.
Peñalosa insists that the unhappiest cities in the world, the ones perfectly calibrated to turn wealth into hardship, are not the seething metropolises of Africa or South America. “The most dynamic economies of the twentieth century produced the most miserable cities of all,” Peñalosa told me over the roar of traffic in Bogotá. “I’m talking about the U.S., of course—Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities tot...
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