Let's get the first point out of the way: fans of Montgomery's Charles Taylor-prize-winning The Last Heathen ought not to expect the same kind of restless journeyman-centred, warts-and-all travelogue with this new book, Happy City. Montgomery writes instead as the "urban engagement specialist" identified in his bio. The voice in this book is more TED talk than In Patagonia, and it wants to sway you to the urgent matter at hand: Most of our cities, particularly our dispersed sprawls, are failing to make us happy. Radical changes to our architecture and infrastructure can be implemented to make us happier ("the city itself [can] be a device for happiness"), while at the same time improving our carbon footprints. We'll need to collaborate with neuroscientists, economists and psychologists, as well as with everyone in both the immediate vicinity and in distant municipalities in order to put our own happiness on an equal footing with efficiency- and market-driven aspects of urban design. The task of the book's chapters – "Convivialities," "Retrofitting Sprawl," "Save Your Cities, Save Yourself" etc. – is to begin pooling that knowledge and to move our happier cities forward.
Many of these points are self-evident. There are enough phrases like "Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious" and "that list might seem as if it were ripped from a daytime talk show, but…" to suggest that the author is aware of the potential traps of taking on such a broad subject, and of wanting to speak to such a wide spectrum of the population. The book began as a series of magazine and newspaper articles, and it still lacks an essential continuity. Montgomery goes on a life-changing bike-ride with Bogotá's former mayor Enrique Peñalosa; he travels to a range of suburban communities in places like Arizona and Denmark; he shows an adept understanding of studies from a variety of specialized fields. There is a lot of educational and entertaining information in this book. Did you know that there are an estimated eight parking spaces for every car in the U.S.? Or that Antanas Mockus once employed a team of 400 mimes in Bogotá to mimic and educate people about the ways in which they were being rude to one another?
While Montgomery should be praised for both the breadth of his research as well the virtues of most everything he argues, something about the point of view of this book doesn't sit right. This is in part due to the mix of campaign-type rhetorical strategies: He'll drop a baiting phrase such as "If you don't give a damn about the environment or your descendants, the feel free to skip to the next chapter," then follow with the well-meaning but grandiose declaration, "just remember that the urban innovations I will later propose in the name of happiness may also save the world."
Small omissions are also a problem. In the chapter where he discusses his social architecture experiments in lower Manhattan with the BMW Guggenheim Laboratory, I wish he had been more up-front about the fact that he was being sponsored by a company whose products would, barring a wholesale car-free revolution, be some of the last on the roads, keeping intact the class-conscious status-quo that he later takes up as a barrier to happiness.
Lastly and most importantly, in a book that espouses the ideal of casting the widest and most comprehensive net possible, I can't acquiesce to the conclusion of Montgomery's brief section about income inequities and "the fair city:" "I don't want to stray beyond the scope of this book – which is about design rather than social policy – but I must acknowledge that such [class] mixing rarely happens if governments don't step in to smooth the way."
This is exactly the point at which the scope must widen. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (an author cited numerous times in this book) is still regarded as the epic poem of urban planning, in part because it presents the link between design and policy as an inexorable one; Jacobs didn't shy away from associating the two. When Montgomery does come around to a discussion of the barriers to reshaping our suburbs, there's little to suggest that the rich will be anywhere in the vicinity, that they won't already be joyously ensconced in their downtown lofts. Happy City retrofits a lot of Jacobs' ideals, particularly with regard to our new environmental urgencies, yet there isn't enough focus on the 'warts-and-all' here to convince me that the cities Montgomery wants us to imagine can truly be for more than a privileged few.
Nick Thran's most recent poetry collection, Earworm, won the Trillium Award. He is a frequent Globe Books contributor.