The Importance of the Happy City

11th June 2015

In Happy City, Charles Montgomery explores the important question, is urban design really powerful enough to make or break happinessAfter years of living in an urban climate, I say absolutely. Montgomery presents concepts, questions, and examples to describe and challenge peoples' needs, lifestyles, and interactions. My question is: Why haven't we been focusing on whether we have the ability to make life better for everyone?

Montgomery uses historical thoughts on the city to show the initial intended relationships between the city-dweller and the city, shaped by urban designers. Some urban designers intend to promote happiness, some promote accessibility, and some rank the importance of independence, separation, and privacy. But what I found, as I filed through this journey filled with examples of what history has taught us about urban communities, is that the city is ultimately a shared project. The city is a place where we can all fashion a common good that we can simply not build alone.


The City of Today

What I find incredible about Happy City is the way it explains how we (Americans) inherited an urban culture that is broken, outdated, inefficient, unhealthy and most importantly, not for us. Instead, early on in American history, automakers highly influenced the way people travelled. And misinformation and naïveté led to building societies based on our perceived need to drive cars. 

Happy City tells us that American cities throughout the 20th century were built on two main design ideologies:

The School of Separation helped cities justify zoning specific areas for division of residential styles, commercial areas, and more dispersed communities. This type of division led to the exclusion of many mixed-use buildings including lower-income housing, it led to dispersed neighborhoods and led to a lack of shared space. Inflexible and dated zoning codes prevent people from developing cities for resident needs and instead favor outside development and those who have political influence. Separation has killed the community.

[The] great irony of the American city: a nation that celebrates freedom and weaves liberty into its national myth rarely gives regular people the chance to shape their own communities (Montgomery 306).

Then you have the School of Speed, which changed the street forever. The street used to be a shared space owned by everyone. Now cities run major roadways in and out of their epicenters to provide car-owners and no one else, the ability to zoom by at high speeds. The need for speed has marginalized walkers, bikers, children, the elderly, low-income residents and more by excluding non-car owners from street-use, sucking up their tax dollars for maintenance and redevelopment for a product they have little or no access to, and congesting or eliminating alternative public space.

Montgomery explains that these schools of thought created the ability for efficient development. In the 20th century, suburban sprawl spread across the US at rapid rates. But these approaches are extremely inefficient for the other parts of the package. City-dwelling, diversity, resource distribution, changes to development, transit and community building are all suffering because of these schools of thought that coat most of America. These neglected facets of urban life all lead to a city-dweller's overall happiness, as Montgomery shows us. And sadly, these schools of thought put us in a very difficult predicament for shaping our future.


What Can Be Done?

In a time where urban gentrification and development can happen overnight, it's important to know why these events are happening. Urban spaces and systems today do not reflect an altruistic approach to solving complex problems that everyone faces. Instead, these spaces express who has power and who does not. Power shapes the mind and soul of the city.

We need leaders to take more concerted action toward improving life for everyone. Companies like IBM and Cisco have already been using technology and data to help improve city life. But is their work helping fuel governments towards implementing change? Google's Sidewalk Labs is on a mission to improve city life for everyone by developing and incubating urban technologies to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage. Innovative companies should be at the front of this movement.

The city is an idea to which each citizen contributes and from which each citizen should benefit (Montgomery 249).

Happy City does well to suggest how and where we can improve our urban communities. It identifies common challenges that we will face collectively as progress is made and what roles both citizens and governments need to take in order for everyone to enjoy equal rights, equal access, healthy lifestyles and ultimate happiness. After all, our fate is shared one.


My Happy City

I moved to Washington, DC in 2012 from a suburban bubble called Ann Arbor, Michigan — a wonderful, imperfect place that I encourage you to visit. Since then, I've lived in six apartments across six neighborhoods and plan on doing a little more exploring before I think I'll "settle down" in one. Each different neighborhood had its perks, but one specific neighborhood stood out to me - Columbia Heights.

Historically, Columbia Heights was home to Columbian College, what we now call George Washington University before its move to Foggy Bottom. And since then, the neighborhood has gone through dramatic change over the last hundred years. But to prevent this from turning into a history lesson, I'd like to tell you a little bit about Columbia Heights and what makes it special to me.

The DC Metro bisects the neighborhood along 14th Street NW which immediately gave its residents easy access to the many Metro-accessible locations across DC. I took it out to my office in Maryland for a good 18 months. The Metro line also gave outsiders an easy way into the neighborhood serving as a catalyst for economic development. Now 14th Street offers of myriad of local businesses, restaurants, and public life including street performers, artists, and children playing in Tivoli Square. The list is never-ending.

Columbia Heights summed up what I want in my community.

I want accessibility. I could take the Metro out to the neighboring states of Maryland or Virginia, then from there, I could then fly anywhere in the country within hours. Buses go up, down and across the neighborhood to various ends of the District. I could get everything I ever needed from the local stores, weekend farmer's market, and shopping center. And if I happened to get severly injured on the way, a hospital was a few minutes down the road (the sirens often kept me awake the first couple of months).

I want diversity. In the 2010 census, Columbia Heights yielded "White" as its 3rd largest demographic group at 23%. And in addition to ethnic diversity, Columbia Heights is home to a number of public schools (I lived across the street from Tubman Elementrary School). So the neighborhood's age-makeup is just as varied. Kids often played on my street while adults often brunched down the block. Subsidized housing options keep the neigborhood affordable to many while a mix of apartments, row houses and luxurious options fill up the remainder of the residential real estate.

I want a community. I want public, shared places where I can be outside in my community so I can walk, be social, people-watch, read, enjoy the atmosphere, etc. I want plant-life. I want walkable areas where the streets respect the lives the of pedestrians and bikers as much as automobiles. I want to share a sense of connection and empathy with my neighbors. I'm from the Midwest; We're nice people.









Columbia Heights offered a lot to me. But its not perfect. Gentrification pushed many former residents out of the area while the city has maintained some subsidized housing options. Property values are skyrocketing as more and more homes on the outskirts of the neighborhood are being redeveloped. But for now, I'd like to say that this area has a unique quality.

Columbia Heights is my Happy City.



From Charles

EDIT - I tweeted out this piece shortly after writing it and Charles, himself, chimed in: