Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Makes a City Happy? Charles Montgomery Investigates.

I have mentioned before how much I love cities--their history, their distinctiveness, and the philosophy behind what makes a good place to live.  The truth is that city or suburb are often just a case of artificial boundaries and compact design or sprawl are the results of competing incentives, created by governments and lobbied by private interests. In a lot of ways, for example, the neighborhood around our store is not that different from Shorewood, the southern half of Bay View has much in common with St. Francis, and parts of Washington Heights and Story Hill have little distinction with Wauwatosa. Ah, but it's those government entities that often make a difference, don't they?

Milwaukee is by no means a small city, but it was a recent visit to New York that got me thinking about urban planning and development, especially because shortly before my trip, our good FOB (friend of Boswell) Tom recommended I read Charles Montgomery's Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (FSG). The pitch was that Montgomery's book was a combination of two of my loves--not just urban planning but behavioral psychology.The book is currently available in hardcover, but comes out in paperback (a reasonable, trade-priced edition) in October.

Charles Montgomery (at left) comes from a journalism background, but it seems that some of the best work in the field comes from outsiders. For every Janet Holtz Kay (Asphalt Nation) and Witold Rybczynski (A Clearing in the Distance and other works), there is a Joel Garreau (Edge City et cetera) and Tom Vanderbilt (Traffic). Montgomery's jumping-off point was Bogotá, Columbia, and in particular, one mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, who premised that while he couldn't dramatically change the economic fortunes of his city, he could make them happier, and the way he decided to do that was to reject the consultants' advice and redesign his city for cars, not people. I'd link to these books, but they are mostly not available or no longer available at trade discount.  University of California in particular has eliminated bookseller-friendly trade discounts from their catalog. We'll see what the long term effect of that is .

The premise of Happy People builds on studies that show that we often make the wrong choices about what will make us happy, and that one of the major tradeoffs we make in the wrong direction (as anyone who regularly watches House Hunters knows) is that we generally pick space over proximity. How many episodes have I watched where the couple wanted to stay close to the action instead chose a larger home 20, 30, and even 50 miles from the city center. My favorite was a recent episode where the house close to town was 12 miles away. I'm not saying you shouldn't live that far outside a city center, but unless you're in one of the top five markets (they weren't), you shouldn't kid yourself that you're close.

The deck has been stacked against urban development for decades. Depreciation favors new construction. Mortgage loans still rarely cover renovation and mortgage interest deductions (which are uncommon in most of the world) favor using mortgage loans, which, well, you get it. And then of course there was the dismantling of the street car system, which has been incredibly expensive to replace.

Milwaukee still has no light rail, and the truth of the matter is that most bus lines in the city, including the 15, which is the closest bus to my house, do not run with enough frequency (studies say 15 minutes is what we need to not check a schedule) to be dependable. On Sundays, my bus runs once an hour and it's often quite crowded, but there are just not funds available. I often walk to the Green line, which has a more reasonable 20 minute schedule, but according to Montgomery, even that is not going to suit the needs of most people enough for them to give up cards. An interesting aside--people will walk 1/4 mile for a bus but 1/2 mile for light rail.

Like many, Montgomery argues that with the long-term decline of our energy resources and the resulting upward pressure on costs, the urban form will be the cheapest way for us to live. It's also his argument that it is the happiest way. And at this point we have to differentiate between small towns and exurbs. Small towns generally do a lot of things right in terms of proximity. But forces have come into play that have hurt many small towns, from big box development to the decline of family farms, to the internet. How are you all going to gather at the post office when nobody goes to the post office? That's an aside--Montgomery is not really interested in the role that third places play in urban life, at least in Happy City.

Montgomery visits some exurbs in Stockton, California to make his point. Now this metropolis has particular problems, but his thesis is that these far flung, heavily zoned, large lot, inaccessible communities have exacerbated urban problems. Now of course you might argue that some of the worst problems of crime are in places with traditional urban development, and you'd be correct. These ideas are certainly not panaceas. Most cities are well aware that if they do not fix their school systems, they will continue to bleed middle class families to self-segregating outer school districts.

For a different take on urban development, Montgomery looks at Asheville, North Carolina, a town that embraced urban development with very successful results. I'm fascinated to visit the city next winter, where the American Booksellers Association is holding the Winter Institute, and I will definitely recommend to booksellers that they read the Asheville study in Happy City. A lot of the other casework comes from New York (because it's large and Montgomery lives there), Vancouver (because he also lives there, and Vancouver has a great reputation as a good place to live, though he notes it has it's share of ills) and Portland (because it's perfect, apparently). You would not believe how many Milwaukeeans I've known over the years who've either moved to Portland, planned to, or just dreamed about it. And the crazy thing is that thirty years ago, aside from the snow, the cities were very, very similar in profile. Talk about divergent paths.

Montgomery explores what's happening in the world of urban designs. There are cities that are reducing the number of signs on the road. Copenhagen experiments with bench placement. David Liebeskind creates a building on busy Bloor Street that repels people. Manhattan closes Broadway to traffic and hordes of pedestrians fill the space, and the traffic actually moves better. College campuses find that suites as opposed to traditional dorm setups make students friendlier. Townhouses create conviviality more than towers in the sky. And everyone likes a tree. Somebody should tell that to New York. I spotted blocks and blocks of Manhattan without any greenery. Once you're looking, you notice these things.

There are two books that perhaps most inspire Montgomery's work. One is City, by the late William H. "Holly" Whyte (it's out of stock indefinitely, find a used copy), the urban planner that used sociological fieldwork and data to look at what worked in cities and what did not. Why were so many subsidized plazas in New York underutilized? It turns out they were designed that way, with little seating, no greenery, and uncomfortable bars on any sort of ledge to discourage any sort of lingering. The problem was those spaces were for the public, in exchange for zoning variances, and Montgomery looks at the continuing struggle to bring cities back to the many (on foot and bikes) as opposed to the few (in cars).

The other book that Happy City calls to mind is Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, the platform book of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. They are considered among the founders of New Urbanism, the group that advocated for compact design that limited car use. Alas, developers did play off the faux traditional forms that accompanied this movement, but things let place new urbanist developments on the far fringes of metro areas. The next stage in this movement is sprawl repair, but it as Duany and Plater-Zyberk argued, the big hurdle continues to be adjusting zoning codes. Why do streets have to be big enough to accommodate enormous fire trucks. Why do cities not have control of designated state roads in their jurisdictions?

Choosing proximity over space is one way the citizens can likely improve their happiness level. One thing a governing body can do is focus on public spaces. Make sure people have them and make sure they are usable. We live green space, sure. But more than that, we like interacting with other people. At the same time, we also want the ability to withdraw to our private spaces. That's why row houses work so well, and work best when they are not flush against the sidewalk, but have a buffer zone in front of them, preferably of the natural, not parked car variety.

The big change since my heyday of reading urban planning books is the rise of bicycle culture. This has been a sea change, and Milwaukee has added bike lanes just as many cities have. We're even experimenting with raised lines--there is one by my house on Bay Street. But we're certainly nowhere near bike-car parity. Other places have curb differentiations, and Bogotá did something fascinating and flipped the traditional model of where bikes and pedestrians belong on the street, in the middle of the road, moving cars to the edge.  One attitude change I had from Happy City is bike helmets. As you know, Americans push to helmet use while Europeans do not. It's a bit ironic in Wisconsin, as motorcyclists almost never wear helmets, and they are going at speeds that are more likely to be fatal if there's an accident. But some studies show that helmets are more likely to lead to accidents, partly because bicyclists take more risk, but worse still, motorists are more likely to take risks with bicycles, giving them substantially less breathing space on the road.

Does enlightened planning solve urban problems? No, and even some of Montgomery's case studies I've found lacking in practice. On my recent visit to Vancouver, the newly developed neighborhoods seemed sterile and car scaled, with lots sizes too large, lots of bland, generic apartment housing, and little ability for infill. Some of the nice older neighborhoods seemed to have no reinvestment going on. It almost seemed like they were slated for destruction. I think that's one of the costs of being a city in demand, like New York, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Seattle. This harkens back to another of my favorite books that touches on development, if from a completely different perspective, Tony Hiss's The Experience of Place. Change is going to happen, but what are the changes that improve a city and what are the changes that destroy it, and how do you keep growth and happiness balanced?

One of Montgomery's findings has been green space. When I visit a city and see a struggling urban area, I head to a map and count to blocks to a green space, and small parks are almost better than large ones, as they are manageable. Why hasn't Milwaukee tried to spur development in the Park East Corridor by replicating a Cathedral Square? It's a small price to pay for possible later payoff.

Now all someone has to do is explain to me why in Wisconsin, light rail is a battle of left vs. right, whereas large rail developments have sprouted in states that are as conservative or more conservative than Wisconsin, including North Carolina, Arizona, Utah, and Texas. Light rail is actually on track for Oklahoma City. Really, explain this to me!

Needless to say, I had a great time reading Charles Montgomery's Happy City. It will find a permanent place on my urban planning bookshelf at home (which also contains some travel lit and history). The book has received much positive press, and recommendations from such leaders in the field as Richard Florida, whose book, The Rise of the Creative Class gave cities an economic incentive to invest in their urban centers. He offers: "“The place we live is key to our happiness. In Happy City, Charles Montgomery helps us understand why and provides a guidebook for living a happier, more fulfilling and meaningful life." For me, the read was both nostalgic (reminding me of my once heavy reading on the subject) and forward thinking, looking at the latest developments. Thanks to Tom for bringing it to my attention.

Happy City comes out in paperback on October 7, 2014. The hardcover is still available, or you can pre-order a copy of the paperback here. And there's more on the author's website.

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