Little Boxes on a Hillside

Salvador Dali Suburbs of a Paranoiac Critical Town, Afternoon on the Outskirts of European History (1936)

Better-designed cities will make people happier—those who get to live in them, at least

The term sprawl makes America’s horrifying suburban transformation over the past century seem like a lazy accident. But the truth is that sprawl happened on purpose, the result of an urban-planning model that rests on the principles of separation and speed. Houses should be separated from shopping and industry and, as much as possible, from other houses. And the faster you can get somewhere, the better.

This model has been around for more than a century, but the auto industry helped make it the national standard by the mid-1950s. Streetcar lines disappeared. Highways tore through urban neighborhoods. The modern suburb was born.

“How cars ruined everything” is by now a familiar story, but in Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery offers a particularly damning overview. Armed with a wealth of data, he marches through the historic and present-day effects of cars and the suburbs they’ve enabled. Suburbs disenfranchise people who can’t drive, like children, the elderly, and those who can’t afford a car. People who can drive often face long commutes to work, and commuting, it turns out, makes people incredibly unhappy—not to mention fatter, sicker, and more likely to die young. Roads are designed so people can drive as quickly and mindlessly as possible, which is a deadly situation, especially when bikes and pedestrians are involved. And then there are the economic costs. People in the suburbs end up paying more than their urban counterparts for water, electricity, and heat, because it costs more to get those resources to them.

What’s especially alarming is that many cities have become indistinguishable from their suburbs, and they’re facing similar problems too: too many cars, not enough public transportation, poor design. This is the “dispersed city,” as Montgomery calls it, and his distinction is apt. For every city like Seattle, there’s a city like Phoenix; for every Austin, a San Jose.

Two years ago, I met Montgomery on the Lower East Side. He was in New York for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a three-month series of public events about urban planning. Montgomery hooked up a group of us to BlackBerrys that tracked our vital signs, then took us on a tour of the neighborhood. He reported that traffic stressed us out. Gardens made us feel calm. We didn’t like the blank, concrete façade of Whole Foods. We liked the vine-covered, brick building that smelled like pizza.

Happy City is billed as “an exhilarating journey” into the world of “urban design and the emerging science of happiness,” and Montgomery spends much of the book flitting among the so-called happiest cities and describing what makes them great. He high-fives his biking companion in Copenhagen, where bike lanes have been expanded so commuters can pedal in twos. He talks about how Mexico City “caught the happiness bug” when it upgraded public transit and turned highways into beaches. He rhapsodizes about walking his elderly mother through a car-free Times Square. Former Bogotá, Colombia, mayor Enrique Peñalosa is perhaps the poster child for the happy-city mission. ­Peñalosa inverted the streets so that bikers and pedestrians got the well-paved middle while cars were relegated to the sidelines, and his TransMilenio system made bus travel look downright sexy.

Exhilarating, perhaps, but the frenetic cheerleading of Happy City starts to sound a bit like The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman’s ecstatic take on globalization, when Montgomery declares without irony, “We can live well and save the world at the very same time.” Like Friedman, Montgomery often mistakes feel-good anecdotes for argument.

The boosterism may have something to do with his background: He’s an optimistic Canadian who hails from Vancouver, which is, according to The Economist’s annual poll, the most livable city in North America. But after a while his optimism comes to look like blindness. Montgomery, like Friedman, mostly refuses to confront the economic realities of the happy world he describes.

For, as anyone who’s checked out the Craigslist housing section in San Francisco knows, what “livable” actually means is “prohibitively expensive.” Montgomery should be familiar with this trade-off: Vancouver has the highest real-estate prices in Canada. In some livability surveys, lower poverty boosts cities’ scores, making “livability” and gentrification virtually synonymous. Herein lies the great paradox of the recent “back to the city” phenomenon: As the rich move into the city, the poor move out. The suburbs of last century’s American Dream are filling with low-income people who can no longer afford to live in the urban core.

Montgomery pays some attention to this problem about 200 pages in to Happy City, in a chapter called “Who Is the City For?” He admits that most of his “happy redesigns” start in places where people have the luxuries of time, money, and influence, and that land values increase as a result. But his solutions mostly boil down to government regulation, like rent control and incentives for mixed-income developments, and he doesn’t have many exhilarating anecdotes to support these proposals. In Bogotá, Mayor Peñalosa campaigned on a promise of “radical equality,” but it’s hard to imagine any elected official in the U.S — even Bill de Blasio — uttering those two words together. And a story about a trio of towers in Vancouver reads like an alarming parable: The first tower in the development contains condos priced to $1.4 million, the second contains rent-controlled apartments, and the third offers “bomb-proof rooms for dirt-poor singles,” most of whom are drug-addicted and/or mentally ill. The three towers exist in harmony, Montgomery writes, but they have separate lobbies and separate elevators because it might be “psychologically hard for the poor to ride the elevator daily with people who were so much richer.”

The notion that enforced segregation protects the poor is absurd. But it speaks to a phenomenon that most people understand inherently: Feeling poor can be as bad as being poor. In cities, income inequality is as much a problem as flat-out poverty. Poor people in metropolitan areas with the widest income gaps are less healthy than poor people anywhere else. Grossly unequal cities also have higher rates of violent crime, drug use, teen pregnancy, and heart disease. Perceived disadvantage is toxic; people will move to poorer neighborhoods to avoid it. Montgomery reports all this but remains unflappable. The Vancouver experiment has been so successful, he writes, that gentrification has accelerated in the area.

The least exhilarating part of Happy City, a section on municipal codes, may actually contain the book’s most crucial proposal. Every city and town in America has a municipal code, and many are identical, copied from an online database called Municode. The code dictates the width of roads, the height of curbs, and the size of lawns. It’s the reason most people in the U.S. can’t walk to a grocery store from their house, and why Walmart builds new megaplexes rather than retrofitting existing buildings. Traditional codes were written with those original tenets — separation and speed — firmly in mind. As one architect tells Montgomery, “Code appears to be neutral, but it isn’t. However neutral the language is, however neutral the metrics, however fair it seems to be, the outcome it has in mind is sprawl.”

Deviating from the code means breaking the law. But municipalities can write new codes, and some are embracing a version that prioritizes form over function. These form-based codes are the backbone of a broader design trend called New Urbanism, whose streetscapes recall the pre-auto era. Some New Urbanist projects have been criticized as cutesy and impractical. (The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside, Florida, one of the most famous New Urbanist experiments and a very expensive resort town.) But when retrofitted for existing neighborhoods, form-based codes can enforce human-scale, walkable, bikeable, and transit-friendly streets and mandate affordable housing in urban cores. In other words, they can criminalize rather than mandate sprawl.

Form-based codes take more work to conceive because they can’t be replicated from one city to the next. But as localism grows in popularity, it’s not hard to imagine a ­homegrown-code movement taking off. And form-based code is scalable, so it can work for a single intersection or for a city like Miami, which became the first major metropolis to toss out its traditional code in 2010. Places like Nashville and Cincinnati are following suit.

The notion that happiness should be a design concern, as polyannaish as it sounds, is actually fairly revolutionary. For most of history, cities weren’t built with anyone’s happiness in mind, except maybe that of kings and dictators. They were built for industry and efficiency, for aesthetic beauty, and for showing off. If cities aimed to inspire any feeling in their dwellers, that feeling was probably awe. Even Central Park, the “people’s park,” was designed mainly to impress New Yorkers with its formal terraces and never-ending lawns.

By Montgomery’s lights, to take happiness into consideration is to address many other, less ephemeral concerns. But in practice, some people’s happiness is more important than others. We’re still building for kings and dictators, only today they are “millenials,” creative professionals, or empty-nested baby boomers, people who will want to believe everything Montgomery says. As Josh Dzieza laments in a review of Leigh Gallagher’s The End of the Suburbs, another giddy-city book, “It’s not enough that cities are more environmentally sustainable, creatively fecund, and wealthy — choosing to live in them also has to be morally good.”

In March, the Huffington Post reported that more people moved into New York City than out for the first time in 60 years. The dream is over, the suburbs are dead, and the city has risen again. That’s the premise not only of Montgomery’s book but a host of others too, all vying to name the trend. Cities Are Good for You, The Triumph of the City, Smart Cities. Will it be the Great Inversion? The back-to-the-city movement? The metropolitan revolution?

But what about the people who are leaving the urban core? Where are they going, and are they going by choice? Happy City doesn’t say. Instead it offers a stump speech to a converted crowd: “The happy city plan is an energy plan. It is a climate plan. It is a belt-tightening plan for cash-strapped cities. It is also an economic plan, a jobs plan, and a corrective for weak systems. It is a plan for resilience.” In Portland and Park Slope, heads are nodding yes.

The question “Who are cities for?” haunts every privileged discussion about the joys of urban life. What is discouraging is that Montgomery is well aware that urban poverty is a global problem. His favorite case study, Bogotá, is acutely poor. Ten years have passed since Mayor Peñalosa’s radical fairness campaign, and Montgomery reports that many of Peñalosa’s initiatives aren’t standing the test of time. He doesn’t talk about what went wrong. Instead we leave for another, happier place.