Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, a new study of urbanism by journalist Charles Montgomery, begins with Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá and one of the current stars of urban planning. Peñalosa became globally famous for helping to establish a world-class bike network (Ciclorutas de Bogotá) and bus system (TransMilenio) in what many would consider the last place on earth to need such amenities—a city that still has a reputation for kidnappings and assassinations, corruption at all levels, and crushing poverty is expected to focus on law enforcement and stronger governance rather than something as effete as bus and bike lanes.
The bike system, however, was a huge success (many of its 400,000 daily riders are poor and use this mode out of necessity rather than a green ethic), and TransMilenio proved to be too successful and too exposed to the motives of the market (the standard criticism of the privatized system is that its buses are overcrowded, even during off-peak hours, and the overcrowding is good, as you guessed, for profits). Peñalosa, like the 20th century's master builder, Robert Moses, vastly increased the number of parks in Bogotá and also the number of trees. The result of his politically tumultuous years in office, from 1998 through 2001, turned out to be a city that's less sad, less frustrated, less fearful. Montgomery calls Peñalosa the Mayor of Happy.
"We might not be able to fix the economy," Peñalosa says to Montgomery as they ride on a bike path in downtown Bogotá (two bodyguards follow them). "We might not be able to make everyone as rich as Americans. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier."
There is a strange story behind Peñalosa's glory, a story expertly told by Montgomery in the chapter "The City as Classroom" that begins with Antanas Mockus, a philosopher, mathematician, and professor who one day "dropped his trousers and mooned an auditorium of unruly students." Mockus lost his job at the university, but the scandal gave him political credibility in a city that had exhausted everything that politics-as-usual had to offer. In 1995, Mockus became the mayor of Bogotá and began a series of urban experiments that blended didactic art, street performance, and social engineering. The most famous of these involved replacing traffic police, who had almost no impact on Bogota's resilient culture of bad driving, with mimes who stood on street corners and brought mocking attention to drivers who violated the rules of the road. The mimes worked surprisingly well. The streets became safer and more orderly. Mockus understood that tickets from corrupt cops would always make a weaker impression on drivers than public humiliation from a mime. "I was elected to build a culture of citizenship," Mockus tells Montgomery. And he did.
At the end of Mockus's term in 1997, the city was culturally prepared for the arrival of the master builder Peñalosa. "[After finally winning] the mayor's seat on his third try," writes Montgomery, "[Peñalosa] insisted that there was an inherent connection between urban form and culture. It was not enough, he felt, to teach people a new citizenship of respect. The city itself had to manifest that philosophy in its forms, systems, and services."
Montgomery's key point in this excellent book, and why he places Peñalosa at the center of it, is that design really does matter. Happiness is not something that you must always find in yourself (the one and only directive of the neoliberal-friendly "positive psychology"—a kind of thinking that, to use the words of the sociologist Sam Binkley, sees happiness as a useful "technology [for] emotional self-optimization"). Instead, your happiness is often decided by the external factors of where you live and how the streets in your city are engineered, arranged, and furnished. It's also important how far you live from shops, parks, or work, and the amount of time you spend in a car for this or that journey.
In chapter after chapter, city after city, example after example, interview after interview, Montgomery—who lives in Vancouver, BC, and has, with good reason, lots of wonderful things to say about the street near his house, Commercial Drive—argues convincingly, passionately, and often beautifully that bad cities and bad spaces generate bad citizens and bad feelings. If you want to change the root mood of your citizens, you must not only seriously consider design, architecture, and zoning codes, but also the human body itself and, to appropriate an expression used in Marx's early works, the human as a "species being." What kind of animal are we? What scares us? What makes us feel safe? How do we move through, see, hear, and represent city spaces?
Finally, Montgomery, again drawing from Peñalosa, recognizes the deep significance of inequality—a subject that's making the headlines of our times. A city that has failed to resolve the politics of inequality will resort to designs that transform class conflicts into bluntly built structures. Montgomery writes: "This became salient for me when reviewing news stories of pedestrian fatalities around Atlanta. I found a tragic succession of similar narratives, in which poor people, usually black and usually children, were killed simply trying to dash across the highway-like byways of suburban Atlanta to reach a suburban bus stop. One might dismiss them as foolish until you note that crosswalks on some of these suburban byways are more than a mile apart."
Sadly, I have to stop here, knowing full well that my review has not done justice to this great book that contains a wealth of information on contemporary urbanism and an enlightened commitment to the politics of design.