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Four Themes from Charles Montgomery's "Happy City"

Updated on June 19, 2017


Charles Montgomery's book "Happy City" details how urban design can become a catalyst for happiness. The book narrates experiences of cities that sought to plan and re-plan for increasing sustainability, walkability, and public morale.

Four important themes from the book are enumerated. Architects, engineers and planners are also invited to leave their comments and suggestions. The objective of the article is to interest more readers and authors into addressing issues of cities through the happiness solution of urban design.

Theme # 1: The Essentials of A Sustainable City

The book provides a description of the expectations towards a sustainable city. Compared to the current "unsustainable" cities, the sustainable city needs to be:

  • healthier
  • higher in status
  • more fun
  • more resilient
  • able to lure people together
  • able to reward people for efficient choices
  • able to ensure that the good choice and the happy choice are the same

No wonder sustainability in cities is hard to achieve: many qualifications need to be met. The good choice and the happy choice, for instance, is seldom the same.

"Public transit innovations tend to take place in cities where policy makers actually ride public transit."

Theme # 2: Dedication to Public Mass Transport and Public Transit

Various examples in the book highlighted the importance of public transit and mass transport to happiness urban design.

  • The TransMilenio of Bogota is a bus rapid transit system that serves both the poor and the rich in the city of Bogota. Its aim was not only "to cut travel times but also to boost the status of public transit riders."
  • "Public transit innovations tend to take place in cities where policy makers actually ride public transit."
  • A feature in the book detailed that bicyclists with helmets are more likely to get hit, based on a study of Brian Walker. His website is
  • The concept of effective speed: "calculating travel time which includes the hours you spend working to pay for your vehicle, as well as the time spent on the journey."
  • Government provides incentives for sprawl through prioritizing funding for highways instead of urban rail and transit services.
  • Investments towards public transit and commercial development are mutual benefit initiatives, as evidenced by a $100M streetcar investment in Portland.

TransMilenio system map as of April 2017
TransMilenio system map as of April 2017 | Source

Theme # 3: Specialized Geographies

Discussions of place and space will always need the perspective of geography. Two specific geographic studies are included in the book.

  • "the geography of loneliness," which is illustrated in the following examples
  1. Jan Semenza's experience of a man who died in a heat stroke in Chicago in 1995. The man, according to the hotel manager, "was totally alone."
  2. "people who live in residential towers...feel lonely and crowded by other people at the same time."
  3. Even though most would prefer a walkable community, most also want to live in a detached home with plenty of privacy and space.

Buy the book!

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Charles Montgomery's Happy City will revolutionize the way we think about urban life.


Theme # 4: Defining the City

Cities are at the forefront of global development trajectory; therefore, understanding the concepts about defining "the city" and the changes that occur in it is important.

  • "The city shapes the way we move; our movements shape the city in return."
  • "...a city is really just the sum of what people think about it. The city is a subjective thing." -Ricardo Montezuma
  • "Cities have always expressed a tension between individual property rights and common benefits."
  • Change the zoning code, change the city.

"The city shapes the way we move; our movements shape the city in return."


Books like "Happy City" provide the local urban designers and planners a tour of different city experiences. Through these examples, the knowledge gap in urban design between developing and developed countries is bridged.

What books about urban issues and problems?

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