Published: 2014
Page Count: 358
Reviewed by  : Syed Muhamad Iqbal Shah Bin Syed Asghar Ali (Research and Development Division, PLANMalaysia)

Happiness is often viewed by economists and policy makers through the lens of economic data such as Gross Domestic Product and income per capita. While happiness and wellbeing do correlate with economic vitality. Charles Montgomery, through his book Happy City takes a different approach in defining happiness. He defines happiness with an equation, measurable and is directly influenced by our built environment. He argues that if happiness is a by-product of wealth, then people must be happier now compared to a century ago. But his research shows that it is not the case, people now are more likely to suffer from clinical depression and mental illness compared to generations ago.


Montgomery highlights the research of the Nobel Prize-winning Professor Daniel Kahneman, known as “hedonic psychology,” which had found a relationship between people’s happiness and their experience with urban life. In this 13 chapter book, the author ventures into how urban design affects our behaviour and wellbeing with reference to various scientific researches by psychologists, behavioural economists, and their experiments.


A Happy City in the eyes of the author is defined as a social city. His views can be related to the philosophy of Aristotle which he quotes in the book as saying “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either be a beast or a god”. While not denying the importance of wealth in the pursuit of happiness, social interaction ranked higher in his happiness philosophy. Montgomery stresses that people who have higher social interactions are likely to be happier, healthier and more productive in which cities play a crucial role in influencing those interactions.


One of the key ideas highlighted in the book is the role of dispersal or sprawl in reducing social interaction and happiness. People now are more likely choosing to live in a sprawling suburban area where houses are cheaper and bigger than in the inner cities without paying too much attention to the effects of commuting for work or social interactions. Dispersal promotes auto-dependent society and people who live in auto-dependent neighbourhoods are less likely to engage with their community as most of their time are spent commuting.


To build a happier cities, people need to be living in a dense, compact and walkable city environment rather than low density, sprawling suburban area. Compact city promotes social interactions as people are living closer to each other, a term he refers to as proximity. He explains in detail that “to say proximity is the key to happiness” is wrong as people value their privacy as much as they value living close to each other. Thus, it is the role of city designers especially planners to strike a balance between designing a neighbourhood that promotes social interactions without jeopardising privacy.


Montgomery also highlights the role of nature and public spaces in the urban environment and how it affects our behaviour with each other. In one of his social experiments, he concludes that people are more likely to help a lost tourist in lively public spaces where street edges are filled with small businesses and activities compared to a sterile unattractive sidewalk.


Happy City is hardly a design manual on how to build a happier city but rather an insightful journey into the effects of urban design on the behaviour and wellbeing of its inhabitants. The book invites readers through the experiences of many cities such as Bogota – on how to reclaim the city from automobile, Vancouver – on how to create lively street edges, Copenhagen – on creating freedom of movement through cycling, among many other cities and examples around the globe. Happy City provides a powerful argument on the importance of improving wellbeing in cities and is recommended for casual readers and professionals on how to create a better and happier urban design. Happy reading folks!