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Solimar Research

Smart Growth Literature Hits a Cul-du-Sac

Josh Stephens on
Nov 10, 2013

Where is Robert Bruegemann when you need him?

A few years back, Bruegmann wrote Sprawl: A Compact History, an exaltation of low-density growth. It called for cities to double-down on all the conventions and mistakes of the previous 50 years. It was a disturbingly anachronistic, but it was provocative, and it was passionate.

It seems that these days there's still plenty of in urbanist literature, but, for better or worse, provocation is getting harder to come by.

Happy City Cover


Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery, pulls up the rear in the urbanist canon. Happy City argues for the right things: everybody would be happier if they lived in denser, more attractive, less auto-dependent, more human-centric cities. Montgomery defines happiness as the Aristotle's concept of eudemonia: self-acceptance, navigation of your own environment, positive relations with others, personal growth, sense of purpose, feelings of autonomy. A city, contends Montgomery, can make or break all of these virtues: "we all translate our own ideas of happiness into form....it is impossible to separate the life and design of a city from the attempt to understand happiness, to experience it."


Montgomery couches Happy City in psychological terms, matching new science with Classical philosophy. Presumably inspired by trends such as positive psychology movement, "gross national happiness," and ratings of happiest and saddest countries, Montgomery explains why the human brain is wired to enjoy itself more in certain types of environments and certain modes of getting around (e.g. pedal, foot) and why driving, subdivisions, and all the other accouterments of sprawl are not stressful because of the behaviors they induce or the people that they attract but in fact because of the actual, formal structure of the environments. Cities must strike a balance between "privacy, conviviality, and biophilia"�the latter being love of nature.  

Unfortunately, too many places embody the opposite. While expediency, and economics, may require us to convince ourselves that the office, the freeway, or the grocery store are OK (perhaps because there are no other options in some places), the human brain, which was raised in the forest and trained to distrust open places, knows otherwise.

"Places that seem too sterile or too confusing can trigger the release of adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones associated with fear and anxiety," writes Montgomery. "Places that seems familiar, navigable, and that trigger good memories, are more likely to activate his of feel-good serotonin, as well as the hormone that rewards and promotes feelings of interpersonal trust: oxytocin."

The most feel-bad environments? Big boxes with long blank walls, and "sharp architectural angles light up the brain's fear centers much like the sight of a knife or a thorn, releasing stress hormones," writes Montgomery. In other words, anything designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Montgomery is great at explaining pop science. But he is not a psychologist himself, and he loses the scientific thread as the book goes on. He makes occasional nods to endorphins and such, but he does not analyze the built and moving environment with the authority or focus of a true scientist. (Even so, a lot of the recent attempts to apply neuroscience to the "real world" to be redundant at best. Surely there are fascinating physiological processes going on in our brains, but we don't need a doctor to tell us how much freeway congestion sucks.)

Traditionally, the great urban books have been written by scholars, practitioners, or activists. Montgomery is none of these. A travel journalist best known for a first-person ethnography of South Pacific tribes, Montgomery does not use his outsider status nearly as powerfully as he could. Maybe Happy City's publisher, the venerable Farrar Strauss & Giroux, finally decided to go looking for something on cities, and they figured Montgomery would suffice.

It's tantalizing to think what Montgomery would have produced had admitted that he came late to the game and had instead pursued an expose of, say, the homebuilding industry or political conservatives, both of which seem to have doubled down on the suburban myth. Even sticking with his theme, he could have done the world a tremendous service by comparing the supposed "preferences" that lead people to live in suburbia with those urban forms that science says is actually healthy.

Montgomery tosses a few barbs at the Tea Party's fierce anti-urbanism and notes that "a nation that that celebrates freedom and weaves liberty into its national myth rarely gives regular people the chance to shape their own communities." With this claim, Montgomery is not criticizing planners per se but rather lamenting the power structure in which they have to operate. He implies that Tea Partiers' roiling frustration with government, and distrust of smart growth schemes, stems in part from the fact that "It's hard to find an agora in the dispersed city. You can't hold a demonstration in a Walmart parking lot or inside a Starbucks."

His best dig at sprawl comes at the expense of the nearly godlike power that many fire departments wield, noting that "sprawl's wide streets [often mandated by fire code] and big lots take up so much space that cities can't accord to build fire stations close by, so it takes fire trucks longer to reach each blaze."

But, for the most part, Montgomery approaches the faults and promises of the contemporary urban condition with a combination of earnestness and "gee-whizz" curiosity.

Happy City relies mostly largely on observations and anecdotes, which are exhausting and globe-trotting. Montgomery describes a host of delightful innovations that are supposed to increase happiness. They range from Enrique Penalosa's Ciclavia to Jamie Lerner's buses to Janet Tsadik-Kahn's pedestrian plazas to Lee Myung-bak's daylighting of the Cheonggynecheon River to Paris and its Velib bike-sharing prorgram -- to, of course, Portland's, Vancouver's, and Copenhagen's overall swellness. To illustrate how the 20th century got into its mess, he also takes a familiar tour from the Greek agora to the to Broadacre City, to Futurama, to the Plan Voison, and then to the cul-du-sac. The High Line is in there somewhere, and Disneyland too.

Happy City is, by all accounts, amiable, insightful and informative. Unfortunately for Montgomery, he writes at the end of decade or two that have produced Walkable City, Triumph of the City, Straphanger, Human Transit, Green Metropolis, Traffic, This Land, Rise of the Creative Class, the Geography of Nowhere, and Suburban Nation, among many others. Just look at Planetizen's annual list of Top 10 books to see the incredible body of work that has arisen around smart growth, environmental responsibility, center-city revitalization, and pedestrianism.

Encouragingly, no matter the perspective -- Edward Glaeser: economics; Jeff Speck: aesthetics and personal health; David Owen: environmentalism, Jarrett Walker: transportation; Florida: subcultures; David Byrne: cycling; James Kunster: sheer incredulity -- many of these authors arrive at nearly identical, or at least complementary, conclusions. Agreement may be satisfying, but it's a little dull. As nice as it might be to read the occasional Molotov cocktail thrown by Kotkin, Bruegemann, or Wendell Cox, it seems that progressive planning has finally won.
It almost seems that Montgomery hasn't been paying attention, and that he's writing for readers who have been similarly oblivious. Then again, who could blame them? All the famous innovations that planners are familiar with are, on the ground, few and far between. Most people have not experienced them firsthand, and most people, including himself, have not spent their lives dreaming about nicer, happier cities. 

At its best, Happy City signals the maturation of the discussion about how to improve cities. Not that cities don't need improvement, or that there's not room for more books or for new ideas (if there are 16,000 books on Abraham Lincoln, then surely the world's cities can lend themselves to a few more). If his book inspires some readers to crawl out from their SUV's and read about smart growth with fresh, eager eyes, then more power to him.  

The real challenge that Montgomery, and everyone else who writes about cities (myself included), faces is that of time. Unless you are at the controls of a wrecking ball, an atomic bomb, or a city hall in China, it takes a lot longer to create a city than it does a book. So, while we wait, we write.

Now these ideas are making their way into plans, projects, and the public consciousness, planners have to make sure that the reality matches up with the rhetoric. And they have to make sure that the triumph of the city -- to borrow Edward Glaeser's phrase -- on paper does not make them complacent, arrogant, or, indeed, too happy. There's a lot of work to be done. 

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Charles Montgomery
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
$28.00
400 pages
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