#49. A Summary of ‘Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design’ by Charles Montgomery


‘Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design’ by Charles Montgomery (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; November 12, 2013)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


1. Compartmentalization: The Separation Project

2. Laying the Groundwork for the Suburbs

  • a. The Beginning of the Suburbs
  • b. The Rise of the Automobile

3. The Rise of the Suburbs

  • a. From Concept to Reality: ‘Futurama’ and Government Spending
  • b. The Design of the Modern Suburb


4. The Suburban Commute

5. The Miserable Commute

6. The Impact on Leisure Time and Family Life

7. Detachment from the Community

8. Driving Is Expensive!

9. Retreat to the City!!


10. The Price of Sprawl (and the Underfunded City)

  • a. The Price of Sprawl
  • b. The Underfunded City: Less Services in the City, More Traffic, More Pollution etc.

11. Compartmentalization Revisited


12. A Vision for the Happy City

13. Repairing Suburbia

  • a. The Sprawl Repair Manual
  • b. The Benefits of Sprawl Repair
  • c. Sprawl Repair in the Community of Lakewood, Colorado

14. The Fight to End Compartmentalization

  • a. Code Wars
  • b. The Form-Based Code

15. Converting the City’s Streets to Make Them More Bike- and Pedestrian-Friendly

  • a. The Inefficiency of Cars
  • b. Converting Copenhagen’s Streets
  • c. The Joy of Cycling and Walking

16. Reintroducing Sociability into the City: The Intelligent Town Square

17. Reintroducing Nature into the City: The Joy of Parks

18. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

The modern city owes much of its current design to two major trends or ‘movements’ that have emerged since the time of the industrial revolution. The first trend traces back to the industrial revolution itself, when the appearance of smoke-billowing factories (and egregiously dirty slums) necessitated new solutions to the problem of how to organize city life. The answer—still reflected in cities all over the world—was to compartmentalize functions, such that industrial areas, shopping areas, office areas, and living areas were separated off from one another into distinct blocks of the city.

The second trend in urban design took full hold in the post-war era, with the rise of the suburbs. In a sense, the suburbs represent a continuation and intensification of the compartmentalization movement, as the living areas of the upper classes were separated-off still further from the other areas of the city—out into sprawling districts miles away (as automobiles made it possible for certain city dwellers to escape to an idealized haven away from the hustle and bustle).

While the suburban movement has had the bulk of its impact on the landscape outside of the city proper, the city itself has not been spared of its influence. For indeed, the city was gutted of many of the inhabitants that formerly occupied it; and, what’s more, it has been reshaped by the roads and freeways introduced to shuttle-in the suburbanites from their faraway destinations.

Now, it may well be the case that all this compartmentalization and suburbification was originally intended to benefit (most of) the city’s inhabitants.  Unfortunately, however, the longer we live with these trends in urban design, the more it is becoming clear that this way of organizing the city leaves much to be desired.

Let us begin with the suburbs, and work our way inwards. In the first place, those who have fled to the suburbs have found that there is a steep price to pay for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city, and that price begins with all the driving. And the hellish commute is only half of it: virtually nothing that the average suburbanite wants and needs, and no place they want to go, is accessible without a car trip. Obviously, all this driving is unpleasant in itself, but this is just the beginning. Second, and even more important, it leaves less time for other things—including family life. Also, the piling up of time spent behind the wheel is just plain unhealthy, as it leads to both obesity and—by extension—several other health problems. Additionally, having to drive everywhere is expensive, and is only getting more so as the price of oil continues to rise. Finally, because suburbanites spend so little time actually walking through their neighborhoods, they tend to have little casual contact with neighbors, which at least partly explains why they tend to be more detached from their communities.

With all the negative consequences of suburban life, it is no surprise that many of those who had formerly fled to the burbs are now fleeing back to the city. Actually, in many cases, suburbanites have had little choice, as the rising price of oil—together with the housing crash of 2008—has left them with no way to afford their suburban nightmare regardless (thus many of the suburbs have become as abandoned as the inner city once was).

Unfortunately, life back in the city has seldom been much better. For one thing, outdated compartmentalization in the city has interfered with accessibility in a manner that is similar to the way that sprawl has interfered with accessibility out in the suburbs. Second, since transportation networks in the city have been rearranged to suit cars, alternative forms of transportation have largely been compromised, thus leaving citizens with less real choice when it comes to getting around. Also, because it has been so expensive for cities to service the suburbs (they being so far away, and so spread out), there has been less money to fund public goods that serve the city, such as public transit, parks and sociability-inviting squares—thus the city has actually become a less livable place in the suburban era.

Thankfully, at least some cities around the world (from Bogota to Copenhagen to Vancouver etc.) have begun taking efforts to remedy these issues, and are beginning to embrace a vision of the city which (according to the research) is both better-functioning and leads to happier citizens. In broad outline, the happy city is composed of multi-use, multi-income communities; laced with parks and public squares of varying sizes; and tied together with transportation networks that reintroduce walking, cycling and public transport as real options. (This vision of the city is often referred to as the new urbanist movement.)

In his new book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design urbanist and writer Charles Montgomery takes us through the history of the modern city, and the latest efforts to reform over a century of ill-conceived design decisions.

What follows is a full executive summary of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery.


As mentioned in the introduction, the modern city owes much of its organization to two trends that emerged since the time of the industrial revolution. The first of these trends sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th century, and consisted in the compartmentalization of the city; or, as Montgomery refers to it, the separation project.

1. Compartmentalization: The Separation Project

The separation project was primarily a response to the pollution caused by the new variety of industrial factory, as well as the dirt and squalor associated with many of the poorer areas of the city. Specifically, the separation project was meant to compartmentalize the various functions in the city, so that its dirtier elements might be avoided by those who wished (and could afford) to. As the author explains, speaking of the separation school, “it’s central belief is that the good life can be achieve only by strictly segregating the various functions of the city so that certain people can avoid the worst of its toxicity… with crowded cities choking on soot and sewage, it was reasonable to wish to retreat from—or at least isolate—the city’s unpleasantness” (loc. 1106).

One of the most influential proponents of the separation project was a Swiss-French architect named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (better known as Le Corbusier). As Montgomery explains, Le Corbusier believed that “most urban problems could be fixed by separating the city into functionally pure districts arranged according to the simple, rational diagrams of the master architect. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City plan exhibits this philosophy in all its wondrous simplicity: on this quadrant are the machines for living; on that quadrant, the factory zone; on another, the district for shopping—urban units stacked neatly like packages you might see in an IKEA warehouse” (loc. 1126).

Le Corubusier’s Radiant City:


radiant_city_le_corbusierIn America, the movement towards compartmentalization began in earnest in the early 20th century, in New York, but quickly spread to other municipalities all over the country. As the author explains, “retailers in Manhattan demanded that properties be zoned to keep industrial interests from sullying the shopping areas along Fifth Avenue. In 1916 the city did just that. Hundreds of municipalities followed. Zoning was intended to reduce congestion, improve health, and make business more efficient. But most of all, it protected property values.  Perhaps this is why we so enthusiastically embraced it” (loc. 1138).

Still, the separation project was not without its opponents, and it wasn’t long before zoning laws were challenged in court. This occurred in 1926, when an American real estate developer found that the zoning laws in Euclid, Ohio, ran afoul of his industrial ambitions. The developer took the issue all the way to the highest court in the land. Sadly for him, though, the Court ruled in favor of the city—and with this a new precedent was established that set up compartmentalization for good. As Montgomery explains, speaking of the developer’s case, “that fight went all the way to the Supreme Court. The village won, and shortly thereafter, the federal government gave all municipalities the same power. Since then, it has been illegal in most American jurisdictions to deviate from very narrow sets of rules governing how cities should be built or altered. Zoning laws and development codes specify what you can build and what you can do on your land… Most powerfully, they strictly separate places for living, working, shopping, and recreation” (loc. 1144).

Nowadays, emissions controls and sewage systems have largely done away with the need to separate the various functions of the city (loc. 1126). Still, though, compartmentalization lives on—partly through inertia, and partly because land developers like the fact that it makes it easier to manage and control large tracts of land. As we shall see later, however, this is rather unfortunate, since compartmentalization makes city living much more awkward (and much less walkable) than it needs to be.

2. Laying the Groundwork for the Suburbs

a. The Beginning of the Suburbs

The second major movement that has shaped the organization of the modern city is the rise of suburbia. Suburbia truly took off following World War II; however, the idea behind the suburbs had actually been around as long as that of compartmentalization. Indeed, the dream of escaping the city emerged at the same time as the city sprouted elements that made compartmentalization look appealing (loc. 425, 1114). In the late 19th century, for example, “English reformers led by Ebenezer Howard planned utopian towns around train stations in the country side” (loc. 427).

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