Following up on our piece about Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming our Lives Through Urban Design, we had a conversation with the author about his book, the process of writing it and what it revealed for him.
Montgomery is an award-winning Canadian journalist, who has become known for his writing on travel, urbanism and environmental issues, among other topics. His 2005 book, The Shark God, won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction.
Next City: I appreciated the fact that you were willing to get personal in your story. It’s not the norm in these sorts of books. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Were you hesitant about using your own life story as evidence for the book’s case?
Charles Montgomery: It was natural for me. I come from a journalistic tradition. For the last couple of decades, and certainly before I fell into the world of city thinking, I specialized in narrative nonfiction. I also want to say that to me it seems a deception to talk about the science of cities without acknowledging how subjective these questions of urban experience are. The truth is, we are all in our own way experts on our cities. So my felt experience and your felt experience are every bit as valid as a neuroscientist’s or statistician’s or engineer’s.
There’s another element here: as I was researching the science and psychology of cites, I was seeing these ideas expressed in my own life. At times with delight and at times with shock and disappointment at my own foolishness. It’s a central idea in the book. Our cities influence our ideas and emotions in ways we don’t even realize.
NC: There was something of a Field of Dreams quality to the parts where you wrote about how the design of certain areas tend to cause people to hang around and behave convivially. Almost as if they couldn’t help it. Did it surprise you that design elements had that magic?
Montgomery: What surprised me was that even though the evidence exists for the power of place to influence how we move, behave and interact, so few policymakers and designers are paying attention. What delighted me is that sometimes the alchemy of space happens by accident.
One of my favorite places in the world is under an overpass in Mexico City. Here, in this filthy, desolate, noisy, car-dominated environment, a simple taco stand manages to draw people from all over the city. To share a bite and some real conviviality under a couple of bare red light bulbs.
NC: Why aren’t policymakers and designers using that alchemy to induce people to spend more time together?
Montgomery: It’s a good question. I think, instead of blaming political philosophy, we should look to the flawed ways that we as humans make decisions. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize in Economics winner, and his colleagues have noted the cognitive quirks that influence all of our decisions around risk and reward. Contrary to what the economists have been telling us for centuries, we get it wrong over and over again in predictable ways.
Anthropologists have noted this tendency to simplify complex problems. On the one hand, it’s Levi-Strauss, noticing 100 years ago that tribes turn every complex issue in their world into binary opposites. On the other hand, city planners have similarly simplified the complex problems of city making. It’s hard not to think of the great airplane design for Brasilia — which looked gorgeous on paper, and yet it produced in new residents a feeling they called Brasilia’itis. A sense of blank disconnection. So that’s one thing.
The other issue is this question of autopoiesis — this refers to the power of a system of rules or behavior to reproduce itself over and over. City builders aren’t bad people. They have simply developed some habits, and these habits become very hard to change. Even when every player in the system realizes that change is necessary.
NC: Did you ever think, as you were writing this book, that some of these socially destructive cultural tendencies are so huge that it’s a bit futile? That we’re too far committed to them to ever come back?
Montgomery: At times, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the challenges presented in cities and the seeming alienation from the levers of power. But, I have to say, my greatest inspiration comes from my new heroes. People who stopped waiting for engineers or mayors to fix their cities and just got to work themselves. I think you read about Adam Kaddo Marino — this kid really is my hero. He had his bike confiscated by his principal because he rode it to school and was warned by the police. For the sake of freedom and common sense, he defied them. And in so doing he changed his own city.
NC: Did this book iterate at all? Is this the book you set out to write? Did the project change over time in ways that surprised you?
Montgomery: Yes, it really did. I finished the first draft of the book in 2011, when I was invited to participate in the BMW Guggenheim lab, which was a global pop-up urban laboratory created by the Guggenheim museum. We were given an empty lot in the LES in Manhattan and invited to turn it into a combination think tank, community center and urban laboratory over the course of three months.
And I decided to take the name of the lab literally and use it as a way to conduct participatory experiments. For example, I invited a neuroscientist named Dr. Colin Ellard to help create a tour through the neighborhood. During which we would measure participants’ psycho-physiological reactions to the neighborhood. On one hand it was really fun to play but on the other hand these experiences made me realize that I, as a city dweller, have a right to be an experimentalist. To do firsthand research that helped me understand my own relationship with the city.
Next City will close 2013 with a survey post highlighting a number of books we found this year that we were not able to give the full Book Club treatment to. Look for that in December.