Happy City, a book by Charles Montgomery, should be on the shelf (digital or physical) of everyone interested in the sustainable future of cities. Given that more than half the worlds population now live in them, and that the numbers continue to rise, that should represent a lot of people. For some people, myself among them, the ideas presented in the book are not new. What is new, is the evidence he provides, statistical, personal and independent, that gives new life to those ideas.
The central theme of the book is that disconnected urban sprawl, the worst kind of supurbia, where people move further and further from major population centres, is bad for the planet, for the people whose lives are spent commuting, and for the rest of us whose taxes go to pay for all the infrastructure that such places need. None of this sounds surprising to me, and I imagine it won’t surprise you either, so why is it that across the world, including here in the UK, we continue to build most of our new homes in exactly these kinds of locations? Far from transport arteries, schools, amenities and services.
Montgomery points out that the appeal of the suburb is based on us lying to ourselves, that we owe it to our children to give them a good life, that crime is lower in the suburbs, and that schools are better. He demolishes these fictions by pointing out that in North America, the value of suburban housing is stagnating, making sprawl a poor investment. Children who grow up in sprawl are more likely to fail in school or end up with a criminal record because their parents are usually absent, working and commuting long hours to pay for the suburban dream, and because new suburbs are particularly bereft of services and activities for children and older people. Instead of the Good Life that buyers imagined, they end up in Breaking Bad.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter describing how the car manufacturers bought up light rail systems in north America and then dismantled them, as they were a threat to their business. How they introduced the jay-walking laws to criminalise walking when there was a danger that deaths on the road would reduce car sales. When people talk about the dangers of listening only to the private sector, there is a good case study. The car industry has been a good employer and earner of foreign exchange for a few countries for the last fifty years or so, but look at the legacy it leaves us. We bought the marketing, now we have to live with the consequences.
Happy City is not all about failure, it covers a lot of ground where improvements have been made in enabling cities to deliver a better life for their inhabitants through better public transport systems, cycling lanes, or just more local community life. From Bogota, to Paris, Mexico City to Atlanta, he has drawn on many sources and interviews for evidence of successes and failures. This is a thoroughly researched book, and an enjoyable read. I recommend it!