Happy City

To be honest, I have struggled to write this blogpost about ‘Happy City’.

Maybe because of the lack of time (my one month old babygirl is very firm in asking for my attention) but mostly because I found it difficult to filter the most important outlines.

So I have tried to sum up some things-to-remember but to get the whole picture you really need to read the book by yourself. If you like cities and want to get to understand them better, than this book is an eye-opener.

I stumbled upon ‘Happy City’ when I was on a city trip to New York last year. I love to wander in local bookshops when I travel and that’s when my eye fell on this book:


First of all, why should you care about the future of cities? I’ll give you one number: 5 billion.

By 2030 almost 5 billion of us will be urban. Urban means ‘living in a city’. That’s a lot. Therefore it is important to make people who live in a city happy (again). How to? Well, use the city itself as a device of hapiness.

Let’s explain.

There a many ways. On aspect of a city that can shape people is architecture. Guided by science, it can determine both the thought and behavior of its occupants.

An example of how architecture shapes hapiness is Disneyland, “The Happiest Place on Earth”. Every architectural detail was designed with the express purpose of tipping the hedonic scale. Disneyland can give you the sense that you have come home, no matter where in the world you grew up.


Architects and city planners have copied its forms in shopping centers, downtowns and neighboughoods around the world. But they misintepreted it through time. Read the book and you will found out how.

Another thing besides architecture was the thought that the secret to hapiness was to escape the city altogether.

The idea being that the faster you can get away from the city, the freer you wil become. Since the upcoming of the car and superhighways became the way to go. It became possible to move away from the city. And that’s how suburbs popped up.

But Montgommery explains that these suburbs are killing our social life.

When it comes to life satisfaction, relationships with other people beat income, hands down. But, contradictory, through the years people have escaped the city to live in suburbs. A system that some have come to call sprawl. It is the most expensive, resource-intense, land-gobbling, polluting way of living.


And on top: people who live in monofunctional, car-dependent neighourhouds outside of urbain centers are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neigborhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.

It was believed that most urban problems could be fixed by separating the city into functionally pure districts.

This is wrong because you can not simplify multifaceted problems. Cities are full of contradicions. It is called heteroscedasticity. For example: French people are more different from each other than they are from Americans. So you can’t use one solution to resolve all problems even when it is about people who share the same culture.

These are only a couple of outlines of the book. Montgommery his claims are supported by science and user cases. He admits that it isn’t easy to shape your city towards a happy city with happy people but he reaches guidelines to do so. The last words of his book are:

We build the happy city by pursuing it in our own lives and, in so doing, pushing the city to changes with us. We build it by living it.

These are some more things you should know about a happy city:

  • Nature need to be built into the urban system, cities have more room for nature than we might think. Take a look at The High Line in New York (picture below). And of course Central Park or that famous street in San Fransisco I wrote about.


  • Get cars out of the city. If you make more road space, you get more cars. If you make more bike lanes, you get more bikes. If you make more space for people, you get more people and of course then you get public life. And it is better for your health, just read my City Fact about Brussels.

car free

  • Public life begins when we slow down. The problem is that most people do not walk because cities have designed destinations out of reach. And if you want to bike in city traffic, you have to be strong and agile. There are some examples of bike friendly cities like Amsterdam so it is possible. Sometimes this means a trip down the memory lane


  • Stores are the soul of the neigbourhood. It is simple: something can happen because something was allowed to happen. When there a no occassions to meet each other, you will not get to know each other. This is a part of what I do professionaly (more about that in another blogpost so keep an eye on Cities in Capitals).
  • Optimalisation of headway elasticity: how frequently buses and trains need to come in order to draw the most passengers. Important is to focus on information. By simply getting more information about the journey it can speed the clock back up again. Or what about free wifi on public transportation? Or the High (tech) Bus?


  • Hedonic sustainability can improve our quality of life. I already wrote a blogpost about Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch artist and innovator. He is a creative thinker and maker of social designs which explore the relation between people, technology and space. His city projects are mindblowing. Or another example: take a look at The Plages in Paris. In the summer on the Left Bank on the Seine the city builds a beach where activities take place.

the plages paris

And last but not least: Montgommery names his inspiration. The man who is called The Mayor of Happy: Enrique Peñalosa.


You can read more in detail about this innovator in city management in the blogpost Major Mayors, and to end this blogpost I can give you just one quote of him that captures a lot of the philosophy of the Happy City:

If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricyle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.

4 thoughts on “Happy City

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s