Charles Montgomery’s Happy City is an interesting effort. On one hand, it’s a thorough description of experiments in urban design, complete with case studies covering the last century. On the other hand, it’s a muddled mix of vague policy recommendations, personal value judgments, and contradictory analyses.
I’ll start with the good: Montgomery shows us countless examples of cities that work and cities that don’t. The studies describing the ill effects of exurbs and the benefits of well-designed neighborhoods are backed up by solid evidence, and have both case studies and statistical summaries to defend them. The book’s greatest achievement is listing the largest turnarounds in city design: Bogota and cities like it managed to make improvements despite some real challenges.
Mongtomery also does a good job pointing out the cumulative effects of good urban design: cities that make people happier also make them healther, make economies better, and make carbon footprints smaller – all at the same time. This runs counter to assumptions that conservation or sustainability necessarily involve a cost or sacrifice. Good cities make several mutual goals achievable using the same means, and the virtuous cycle that can follow makes the entire enterprise seem worth trying. Obstacles to the good city largely involve bad incentives embedded in city building codes, zoning laws, and tax laws, and Montgomery does a good job of exposing the many hidden incentives that push people into suburbs and exurbs even when most people are happier in denser, livable neighborhoods.
This is where the book’s shortcomings become apparent. Montgomery tells us repeatedly that people make choices (like living in the suburbs) that they come to regret, but takes polls in which people say they’d prefer walkable neighborhoods at face value. If people are actually willing to spend hundreds of thousands to live one way and get it wrong, why would polls in which they have nothing at stake be more accurate than their actions? Similarly, when citing statistics that show that bikers are the happiest commuters or that watching TV is associated with depression, Montgomery does little to defend the methodology: isn’t it possible that healthy people with flexible jobs (or no children) get to commute by bike, and that depressed people watch TV because they don’t go out? (Yes, at least on the latter.)
The economics of the book are also very weak. For example, Montgomery makes Vancouver one of the shining examples of successful cities, except when he notes that it’s becoming unaffordable. This is to be expected, of course, but Montgomery chooses not to recognize this as a sign of either success OR a problem, but waves it away as something that “needs to be taken care of by the government.” It’s baffling that a book about modern cities doesn’t cite Edward Glaeser’s work, but Montgomery omits him entirely. It’s not surprising – Montgomery clearly has much more central-planning-oriented politics than Glaeser – but it’s disappointing. This is especially apparent because Montgomery does nothing to tell us where heavy industry, manufacturing, and agriculture happen in his Park Slope utopia. Montgomery praises the elimination of cars and is great at chronicling the benefits thereof, but he doesn’t show the downside of eliminating delivery routes. He decries big-box stores but doesn’t account for the economic benefits of scale.
In fact, Montgomery is at his worst when he dabbles in social policy, where his central-planning tendencies start to show. He contradicts himself at times – first privately designed neighborhoods serviced by privately run streetcars are successful and basically an ideal to aspire to, next private services can’t possibly provide good neighborhoods and public planning is needed. Similarly, Montgomery correctly identifies bad regulations that encourage sprawl as a problem, but considers eliminating them to be a “big fat bonus for property developers.” Montgomery shows the success of Copenhagen and Vancouver as something worth emulating, but doesn’t consider the possibility that those two cities are exceptional: rich, mostly homogeneous cities in western democracies are hardly a challenge. Montgomery has nothing to offer for Phoenix or Houston, let alone Mumbai or Lagos. His ideas just aren’t scalable in any real sense. There is also an unnecessary cheap shot against the Tea Party that makes the book overtly political in a sense it doesn’t need to be.
Ultimately, this book is worth reading for people interested in livability of cities. That said, the prescriptions of mixed-use neighborhoods (incidentally, much like East Lakeview where I live now) seems to reflect a little too much of Montgomery’s own preferences and don’t account for many economic realities that need to be addressed. “Have better people plan your city” is hardly a solution. After all, as Montgomery himself tells us, city planners is who gave us our present problems.