The Happy City

Urban Planning Book: “Happy City”

I list four themes from the book “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery.

Charles Montgomery’s book “Happy City” details how urban design can become a catalyst for happiness.

The book narrates experiences of cities that sought to plan and re-plan for increasing sustainability, walkability, and public morale.

Aside from Arch. Paulo Alcazaren and Prof. Ernesto Serote, I do not know other authors who wrote books about the Philippine cities in a tone similar to “Happy City.”

Book Themes from Happy City

  1. The Essentials of a Sustainable City
  2. Dedication to Public Mass Transport and Public Transit
  3. Specialized Geographies
  4. Defining the City

Architects, engineers and planners are also invited to leave their comments and suggestions.

Theme # 1: The Essentials of A Sustainable City

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The book provides a description of the expectations towards a sustainable city. The sustainable city needs to be:

  • healthier
  • higher in status
  • more fun
  • more resilient
  • able to lure people together
  • able to reward people for efficient choices
  • able to ensure that the good choice and the happy choice are the same
A graphical summary of the Sustainable City. Happy City.
A graphical summary of the Sustainable City. Happy City

No wonder sustainability in cities is hard to achieve! There are many factors!

Read: Are there sustainable cities in the Philippines?

The book also argues that the good choice and the happy choice is seldom the same.

Theme # 2: Dedication to Public Mass Transport and Public Transit

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Various examples in the book highlighted the importance of public transit and mass transport to happiness urban design.

Read: What the Dream EDSAs of Urban Planners and Architects Look Like

The TransMilenio of Bogota is a bus rapid transit system that serves both the poor and the rich in the city of Bogota.

Its aim was not only “to cut travel times but also to boost the status of public transit riders.

“Public transit innovations tend to take place in cities where policy makers actually ride public transit.”

Happy City

A feature in the book detailed that bicyclists with helmets are more likely to get hit, based on a study of Brian Walker.

The concept of effective speed: “calculating travel time which includes the hours you spend working to pay for your vehicle, as well as the time spent on the journey.”

Government provides incentives for sprawl through prioritizing funding for highways instead of urban rail and transit services.

Investments towards public transit and commercial development are mutual benefit initiatives, as evidenced by a $100M streetcar investment in Portland.

Theme # 3: Specialized Geographies

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Discussions of place and space will always need the perspective of geography. Two specific geographic studies are included in the book: the “geography of loneliness” and the “geography of honking

The book details Jan Semenza‘s experience of a man who died in a heat stroke in Chicago in 1995. The man, according to the hotel manager, “was totally alone.”

The book also argues that even though most would prefer a walkable community, most also want to live in a detached home with plenty of privacy and space.

“people who live in residential towers…feel lonely and crowded by other people at the same time.”

Aaron Naparstek is the main character of a story about the “geography of honking.”

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Theme # 4: Defining the City

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Cities are at the forefront of global development trajectory.

Therefore, it is important to understand our definitions of “the city” and the changes that occur in cities.

One main argument in the book is about zoning: when you change the zoning code, you change the city.

Some of my favorite quotes about defining the city from the book.

  • “The city shapes the way we move; our movements shape the city in return.”
  • “…a city is really just the sum of what people think about it. The city is a subjective thing.” Ricardo Montezuma
  • “Cities have always expressed a tension between individual property rights and common benefits.”


Books like Happy City provide the local urban designers and planners a tour of different city experiences around the world.

Through these examples, the knowledge gap in urban design between developing and developed countries is bridged.

I invite the architects, engineers, and planners to leave comments and stories of successes and failures in the Philippines towards urban design. 

Read: Be Inspired by these 12 Filipino Environmental Planners!

I hope one day, in addition to technical documents and consultancy reports, books on urban planning about Philippine cities will be published with the narrative and illustrative pattern of Happy City.

What books about cities have you read?

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