Happy City by Charles Montgomery is another great addition to that genre of non-fiction books written by journalists who weave stories, statistics, and interviews in a way to explain a very complicated topic.
In this case, the topic is how the design (or non-design) of a city predetermines much about how we live. Those predetermined choices can create a sad, stressful, disconnected life or an active, sustainable, connected life.
But the story of how we create cities (and, by corollary, the areas outside of cities) is incredibly complicated. Most design choices are fraught with tradeoffs, unintended consequences, and unknown costs.
In fact, most choices about how our cities came to be were full of good intentions. Taking right of way from people not using cars and giving it to people using cars in the 1920s was meant to reduce injuries, increase efficiency, and clean up the city (e.g., less horse poop). In fact, cars ended up killing a lot more people and destroying many established neighborhoods.
And it’s tradeoffs like this that Charles Montgomery tells a compelling story about. It’s a solid book that’s worth reading not just for interest in urban design – but also for ideas on how to improve the actual street that you live on.
There has been a ton of research into how people interact with each other on the sidewalk, how to slow traffic, how to organize and fund neighborhood improvements, and how to pull the levers of power at your city hall. All that information is in the book and combined with engaging anecdotes from cities ranging from rural small towns to New York City to Dallas suburbs…and of course, my own city of Atlanta.
Here are a few pages that I took pictures of to give a flavor of the book.
Thankfully Departments of Transportation across the country are making safety a higher priority.
And yet – it’s still maddening how few resources we spend on improving road safety when we obsess over getting to ZERO deaths from air travel, terrorism, food safety, and so many other causes.
We tend to still attribute road deaths to driver error when road safety improvements have dramatically decreased the death rate already.
But our obsession with fast car travel has led to more issues, where Atlanta is THE example.
Side note – I wrote a long review of Kevin Kruse’s book on White Flight here.
There is a fabulous blog post about the True Cost of Commuting here. Cars feel free, but they are probably the most expensive thing you have to own & maintain.
Happy City is a great book that makes urban design both accessible & interesting. There's plenty to understand at the society level - but also plenty to do on your own street.