Happy City from a Dutch perspective

Dear Mister Montgomery,
My name is Gerben Helleman and I'm an urban geographer from The Netherlands. This summer I finally had the time to read your book 'Happy City'. Admittedly, a bit late, but my jobs, blog and six years old daughter kept me 'occupied'.

I really enjoyed reading your book. It is a great summary of all the movements in the last decades in urbanism, architecture, planning and design. With all the inspiring things you read on social media and websites about happy city crusaders (such as the war on cars in Bogotá, bike friendly Copenhagen, the placemaking activities in Paris, and the woonerven in my own hometown). I try to contribute to that discussion with my blog 'Urban Springtime' which is about the beautiful, funny and exciting sides of the city. About making cities for people through for example attractive public spaces. Your book was therefore a feast of recognition and with the journalistic approach (telling personal stories) it got an extra dimension compared to other books. In other words, I read your book with great pleasure. When I was reading I noticed a few things that I would like to share with you and - if I may - I want to ask you some questions.

The dispersed city
It is interesting to read how the desire for independence, freedom, space, privacy, mobility and detachment has led to an enormous suburban sprawl in North America: monofunctional, car-dependent neighborhoods far away from urban centres. With different unwanted side effects: the enormous distance between the dream house and workplaces, school, shops, and other facilities led to an enormous expenditure item on cars and fuel (I once read about the 'Location Affordability Index' to make people more aware of their location choice. What happened to that?). And this suburbanization led to inactivity, air pollution, sickness, traffic crashes, and frustrations (in traffic jams). Creating - what you call - the dispersed city: "the most expensive, resource-intense, land-gobbling, polluting way of living ever built." To cope with these urban issues you have to deal with some familiar contradictions. You describe for example the tensions between spacious and density, between individual property rights and common benefits, between quiet and crowded, between privacy and intimacy, between individualism and having a connected life, between isolation and proximity, between certainty and lack of control, and between pushing people apart and drawing them closer. I think that not everyone is aware that the solution lies somewhere in between. Perhaps as a consequence of this persistent, but false expectation that wealth, highways, and new buildings lead to well-being and happiness.
(By the way, I wasn't aware that the restrictive zoning codes and road standards in North America prevent a decent 'sprawl repair'. A very informative chapter.)

Modest needs
Reading books about North America with an European mindset is sometimes a struggle. Not only because of the enormous differences in scale, but also because of the different views on politics, economy, taxes, social issues, and so on. In your book you also expose a few differences that explain why urban regions differ by country and continent. I would like to add one more: the level of satisfaction.

In the Netherlands we build - on average - in higher densities. This density is not so much realized with high-rise, but through more efficient use of the available land and due to a lesser tendency to overscale.

Some data: the average house in the Netherlands (floor space) is around 100 square meters (1.076 square feet). When we talk about a big house for families it is around 120 square meters (= 1.291 square feet). The average house size in the United States is around 214 square meters (2.300 square feet). The difference between Europe and the United States has been growing through the years (while the household size has decreased).
The average garden in the Netherlands is 125 square meters (1.345 square feet). The average yard in the U.S. in shrinking, but still 850 square meters (9.148 square feet), with big differences between states.

This smaller footprint is a logical consequence of the fact that building land is more scarce in our country, but I think it has also to do with our Calvinist mindset. Keeping it simple and not ostentatious. I think the treadmill theory you mention (the richer you get, the more you compare yourself to other rich people and the faster the wheel of desire spins), is less common in the Netherlands than at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. There's a Dutch saying (Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg!) which would literally translate into something like: ''Just act normal, then you're acting crazy enough as it is!''. So, maybe we are more satisfied with what we have. Or - in your words - we might have more intrinsic motivators (collecting experiences) then extrinsic motivators (collecting objects). As a result we - in general - don’t get motivated to move each time to a bigger house with a bigger yard in a more perfect neighborhood. When we move, this has to do with changes in the household composition and sometimes with work location.

You can see this also in the data. Approximately a person in the Netherlands will move seven times in his/her lifetime. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average person in the United States moves residences more than 11 times in his or her lifetime. 

Planned vs. lived city
In your book you make a strong point that we are not as free as we think in our choices how to live, because our options are limited by supply that has been given by for example planners, engineers, politicians, developers and architects. Although it is always a tricky question whether supply determines demand or vice versa (the chicken or the egg), I support your thoughts that the ‘planned city’ has too much power over the ‘lived city’. It is - what I call - the tension between the way ‘the city is planned, designed and made by professionals’ versus ‘the city as it is experienced and filled in by its residents’. But I think that there is a slight difference between our continents. I think the professionals in the Netherlands (architects, urbanist, planners, developers) are less influenced in their work by capitalism assumptions. Being more frugal.

This mindset and interaction between supply and demand has led to a built environment where a lot of facilities are at walking and bike distance. Fulfilling the needs of people that destinations should be within a 5 or 10 minute walking or cycling radius. And creating densities that make frequent service of transit more financially feasible. This urban design also affects the average distance between an employee’s place of employment and his/her home. In 2015 that was only 22,6 kilometres (= 13,7 miles) in the Netherlands. According to Statista the average amount of time spent travelling to and from paid work is 34 minutes (men) and 22 minutes (women). I was surprised to see that commuting time in the United States is even less: 25 and 17 minutes (in Canada it is 36 and 25 minutes). That doesn't match with the message that your book conveys. The told anecdotes gives you the feeling this is much more. Can you explain this? Are these statistics not correct? Is this low average a result of the very short commuting time for people who live and work in the same city? Or is there another reason?
Nonetheless, as you mentioned it is not per se the commuting time that determines the mood of people. Research shows it depends on the specific combinations of commuting time and commuting mode. An increasing commuting time can even lead to an uplift of mood when the commute is by bike or foot. Matching your story that cyclist (and walkers) are happier and feeling more connected to the world than people who are sitting in the sealed environment of an automobile. My little country comes up in a positive way when you look at the mode of transport. In 25 percent of the commuting trips the bicycle is the most important means of transport (4% walks). For comparison, you write that of every one hundred American commuters, five take public transit, three walk and only one rides a bicycle to work or school.

In practice. I live in Delft, in a what we call a medium-sized city of 102.000 inhabitants, located between Rotterdam and The Hague. I live in a house of 120 square meters (= 1.291 square feet) together with my wife and child. With three bedrooms, the third one serves as working place (where I am sitting right now), storage and as a place for the laundry rack. The garden is 5 meters wide (16 feet) and 25 meters (82 feet) deep. This is the way I translated my own ideas of happiness into form. The location and proximity of facilities is a very big part of this (see figure below). We live just outside the city center, with the old marketsquare (and different services) within a 13 minutes walking distance. That’s also the case for the big supermarket (8 minutes), the primary school (7 minutes), small park (7 minutes),and small supermarket (3 minutes). Only my sports club is further away (13 minutes by bike, 11 minutes by car). My work at a housing association in The Hague is accessible by bike (25 minutes), train (15 minutes, including for and after transport) and streetcar (30 minutes). Although you need some luck with your work location, my situation is not exceptional. For many Dutch people a lot of destinations are easy to reach with different kinds of transport modes. In this way both parents can bring and pick up their children at school or after school care. And eating diner together around the clock of six. 
Terraced houses (row houses)
Don’t get me wrong. The Netherlands is not the paradise. We have also made our mistakes in urban planning. Influenced by the design ideology of separation and replication of Le Corbusier and his companions. Think for example about the Bijlmermeer. And we were also influenced by Ebenezer Howard's plans for garden cities. We therefore also have suburbanization, but on a completely different level. These residential areas are still close to larger cities, connected with trains to other destinations and are still compact because eccentric housing requirements are less common. With the exception of the countryside, it is hard to find detached single-family homes on big separate plots. Mostly you will find rows of two-story houses situated side by side and sharing a common wall with a small (1 meter/3,3 feet) front yard and a backyard (4 of the 7 million houses are from this type). A friendly or helpful neighbor is always nearby, but at the same time you can retreat. Homeowner associations, like in America, who have an opinion about your house or front yard don't exist.

Spare time
So, that's the way a lot of Dutch people translate their own ideas of happiness into form: medium sized houses in compact cities. That saves a lot of time that you don’t have to spend on cleaning, gardening, and commuting. Time which you can spend with your partner or kid(s) and on hobbies, sport or volunteer work. Increasing the frequency and quality of social (face-to-face) interactions. One of the most important - as you mention - criteria for happiness.

Thanks again for your wonderful book. Hopefully you have the time to answer some of my questions.


Gerben Helleman
Blog Urban Springtime

Gerben Helleman (2012) Bubbling under: Amerikaanse presidenten en stedelijk beleid. Blog Stadslente.

Gerben Helleman (2017) Obama en stedelijk beleid: na het zaaien het oogsten? Blog Stadslente.

Charles Montgomery (2015) Happy City; Transforming our Lives through Urban Design. Penguin. 

(c) Photo's and figure by Gerben Helleman


  1. Charles Montgomery24 November 2018 at 14:39

    Thank you for your review Gerben. It is wonderful to learn more about the Dutch approach to happier cities.


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