By Caroline Hemphill

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is the 2023 UCSB Reads book. Happy City is about the importance of thoughtful urban planning, and how through it, big city life can bring its residents joy rather than stress. 

UCSB Reads is an award-winning program that brings UCSB students, faculty, staff, and other community members from diverse backgrounds and disciplines together. The books chosen consider the important issues of the day, and the programming around them encourages discussion among community members. UCSB Reads books are often incorporated into course curriculums, and the library and other campus organizations host events themed around the book.

Alex Regan, Events & Exhibitions Librarian at the UCSB Library, is one of the leaders in charge of 2023’s UCSB Reads programming. Happy City had been on the UCSB Reads shortlist for some time, but for a few reasons, 2023 felt like the time to bring the book to the library’s center stage. Encouraging conversation about challenging, important issues is a goal of the program, as well as getting faculty and instructors to incorporate the book into curriculums, Ms. Regan explained. The advisory committee this year, composed of campus faculty and staff, thought that Happy City could help combat isolation in the wake of the pandemic. “The book really focuses on community, and how important it is to feel connected to your community, no matter where you live” Ms. Regan said. “It’s a topic that’s relevant to all of us.” 

When we think about city living, happiness and deep community connections are rarely the first things to come to mind. Montgomery, however, uses a science-based approach to argue that urban planning decisions do impact our happiness. 

As it turns out, many of the tenets of Montgomery’s “happy city,” including housing density and accessibility, are also key to making a sustainable city. . Montgomery explains that more dense housing communities increase community connection, because people see their neighbors. Dense housing is also better from a sustainability perspective. The smaller a person’s home is, the less energy and building materials go into the construction and maintenance of it. Another big theme in Happy City is how car-centric city planning decreases happiness. Driving can be an isolating activity, especially in contrast to options like public transportation, biking and walking, which also allow for time outdoors. Montgomery emphasizes the importance of making public transportation and biking viable transportation options by making them safe and accessible to all. Biking, walking, and taking public transit are all ways to decrease individual carbon emissions. Another way that a happy city is a sustainable city is that happy cities have public gathering places, like parks. Healthy  natural spaces are important in keeping cities green, too: they can help preserve natural biodiversity, and plants help take carbon dioxide out of the air. Considering things like housing density and access, sustainable transportation, and natural outdoor spaces are all ways of creating a greener, more sustainable city while also making residents’ lives easier and more enjoyable. 

The UCSB and Isla Vista community have the seeds of a happy city. Fostering a culture of biking is one way the community is a happy and sustainable one. With UCSB’s seven miles of class I bike paths, plentiful bike racks, and resources for safe biking, UCSB is undoubtedly a cycling-friendly place. Events like CycleMAYnia, which challenges participants to go to bike-centric events and complete tasks for points, further encourage the biking community. The month-long challenge kicked off on April 29th, and upcoming events include community bike rides, UCSB Bike to Work/School Day on May 18, bike workshops, and a talk on long-distance cycling. 

In terms of sustainable, accessible transportation, there are many initiatives to ensure UCSB community members are able to rely on  public transit. This includes the Community Engagement Plan, funded by the State Transportation Equity Program (STEP). While UCSB students can rely on SBMTD buses and campus bike paths for free, safe, reliable transportation, other community members cannot do the same. The Community Engagement Plan aims to bring together community members to determine ways to provide reliable transportation for all groups, not just UCSB students.

Isla Vista is also a very dense community, fostering connection and community. However, the community does have issues that need to be addressed to become a happier city. One of the most important issues is the lack of available affordable housing in the community. Ms. Regan hopes that reading this book will help people address these issues. “Having the opportunity to  think deeply about our community and envision how we want it to be is a really important exercise,” she said. 

One of Ms. Regan’s favorite parts of the 2023 programming has been students seeking opportunities to plan events around the book. Students created a student book club to discuss the book. There was also a zine workshop in the library centered around Happy City. Now, there is an exhibition in the library’s Learning Commons that displays pieces from the winter issue of The Catalyst, a literary magazine. The Catalyst’s winter quarter issue was titled “Isla Vista: Happy City,” and was focused on the themes that are recurrent throughout the book. 

Every year, UCSB invites the author of the UCSB Reads book to present a free public lecture at Campbell Hall, and this year, Charles Montgomery will be visiting UCSB on May 10 to talk about “Happy City” and what he has been thinking about since the book was published. You can register for Montgomery's free talk, which will include audience Q&A and a book signing, at this link.