Happy City by Charles Montgomery

Happy City does not introduce a radical new concept for shaping cities. As the author, Charles Montgomery, points out, Athenians strove for pure happiness as far back as the fifth century A.D. They coined the state of achievement, eudaimonia. Centuries later, in 1943, Abraham Maslow categorized five levels of human needs. The most basic are physiological needs--food, water, warmth, rest. The top of the pyramid is self-actualization, achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities. This level is in essence the Athenians term of eudaimonia. While some may believe society has achieved the highest level of the pyramid, there are many citizens within our cities struggling at the bottom rungs.

What makes this book so engaging is the real work examples of how people have benefitted and suffered from the way their cities are designed. The book does not focus on architecture or psychology, however it does address both topics to support the overall happiness concept. The author succeeds in telling the story of how planners, engineers, city officials, and citizens shape our cities to either become dense, urban, walkable neighborhoods or sprawling, congested nightmares.

The strongest example from the book is in the first chapter and referenced again throughout later chapters. Enrique Penalosa, the mayor of Bogota from 1998 to 2001, created the first ever car free day in the city. He was not focusing on environmental concerns or traffic congestion, but how to make his citizens happier. He did this because “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.” For one entire day, cars did not run and everyone commuted the same, by walking, biking, or taking public transit.  

The author admits, measuring happiness is subjective and difficult. How can we tell if we have made citizens happier through physical city design?  There is currently no perfect method of measurement. Some of the wealthiest cities have been shown to be the highest rated for resident dissatisfaction, therefore more income does not directly equate to happiness.

Equitable cities are one way to work towards a measurable happiness. A better city is one not dominated by one lifestyle, but multiple options. Mixing uses, incomes, ethnicity and race produces more active and engaging environments. Montgomery spends numerous chapters discussing the creation of roads for everyone, not just vehicles. Equitable roads are made for everyone--transit, bike, pedestrian, vehicle, young, old, and everywhere in between.


The author begins the last chapter of the book with a quote from the great urbanist Jane Jacobs. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” As a city planner, I would challenge all my fellow planners, engineers, city officials, and citizens to take this to heart. We all create our cities by living, working, and engaging in our urban environment.