Change the code, change the city


Rules do what we ask them to do. What do the rules that shape your city do? In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery argues that the physical pattern of the cities we build makes us unhappy. He proposes we change the pattern, change the code, and by doing so we will change the city and improve our lives.


We are all, through the very geography of our lives, natural stewards and owners of the city. Those who acknowledge it claim immense power.
I have learned this from people who have stopped waiting for mayors or planners or engineers to remake their streets and neighbourhoods. Some… just want to build a community that makes more sense for them than the one that planners handed them. Some are driven by a wish to reclaim an almost intangible sense of belonging. Others want a safer spaces for their kids. Some are trying to save the planet. Some want more freedom to live and move as they please. They rarely use the language of neuroscience or behavioral economics or even architecture, but they are proving that the happy city revolution can start right at the front door, and that every one of us has the power to alter our city. Some of them find that in changing their cities, they also change themselves. (p.  295-6). 

We make our cities. We also have the ability to re-make them.


To better dive into this challenge, remember the four voices of the city offered by Marilyn Hamilton:

4 quadrants - city lego playmobil

These four voices have different roles to play in our cities, enabling us to access the full intelligence of the city as we re-make it:

  • The voices of citizens express the center of gravity of the city’s values.  In democratic countries, citizens have the power to elect and criticize the other voices in the city.  They have power as intentional consumers. They express the power of engagement and intention.  They are the voice of the city spirit.
  • The voices of city managers are the voice of city expertise; they are the guides  that oversee the needs of the city.  They are the people who work at city hall, school boards, health institutions on our behalf.  They are the voice of the city brain.
  • The voices of civil society are the cultural voice of the city. These are the social organizations and non-government organizations that attend to the social needs of the city.  They are the voices of the city’s heart.
  • The voices of city developers are traditionally the people who ‘conceive of, invest in and build the infrastructure of the city’.  These voices focus on the future – the vision and promise of the city.

The city is a dance of voices and values. It is also where we integrate voices and values, to sort out our relationships with each other and our city habitat. At the heart of this are citizens working to improve our economic, social and physical city habitats. Montgomery is one of these citizens, and tells the story of other citizens’s work.


Our city managers put in place rules to guide the physical development of our cities. In the Western world, they do so with our blessing, through elections and public engagement. Montgomery asks if our rules and codes align with our preferences:

If so many people want to live in or near walkable urban spaces, why have so few been built in the last few decades? Why can’t any town just retrofit its troubles away?
One reason stems from contradictions within our own preferences. Although it is true that most of us say we would prefer a walkable community over one that forces us to drive long distances, more of us also want to live in a  detached home with plenty of privacy and space. In other words, we would like to have our cake and eat it too, the ideal world being one in which we reap the benefits of other people choosing to live in apartments and town houses nearby, but not close enough to disturb our sleep (p. 278). 

Montgomery has noticed that the things that make suburbs more walkable, slower, safer, healthier and more welcoming are often forbidden by zoning codes and road standards. There are strict controls on what happens on each lot of land: “Everything has its place – far from everything else (p. 279).” We create the rules that create what we have; “change the code and you change the city (p. 282).” Further, code “is to the city what an operating system is to a computer. It is invisible, but it is in charge. So the battle for American cities has moved from architectural drafting tables to the dense, arcane pages of zoning codebooks. The winners will determine the shape of cities and the fate of suburbia (p. 283).”

Here’s the thrust of Montogmery’s case: our current set of rules (zoning bylaws or codes) separate and segregate the various activities in a city, which causes dispersal. An example alternative is  form-based code, “a set of rules that prescribes the shape of spaces that building without necessarily dictating what can happen there. Most form-based codes specifically do away with the strict segregation of uses that characterized twentieth-century zoning plans, so that work, play, domesticity, and commerce could begin to intermingle again (p. 283).”

A change in code from segregation to integration will change the form of the city, and our relationship with it.


There’s another pattern change needed, in how we look at the city. It starts with a distinction between the ‘City’ and the ‘city‘.  The ‘City’ is the local government entity that plays the role of civic manager. The ‘city’ is the economic, social and physical habitat we create. This distinction is important; while the City puts in place the rules, all voices are looking for rules that will serve the city, not the City. This is work for all voices to do. For Montgomery, a town or a neighbourhood or a city is “not just a picture, and not just an idea, but a system for living [you] can shape together (p. 294).”

So the task now is to retrofit the city. “This is the lesson for all retrofits: the system is ultimately more important than the package it comes in, and the greatest hurdle for sprawl repair may be challenging the way each of us views the city (p. 291).” And we will view it from our different perspectives (voices) and our values. We organize ourselves – and our cities – according to our values. (For more on this, read Is the unplanned city unplanned? Part 4).

Montgomery’s call is to get involved.  Change the code, change the city. Change how you relate to the city, and you change the city, regardless of what role you play – as citizen, city manager, civil society or civic developer.

Sometimes the forces that shape our cities can seem overwhelming. It is easy to feel small in the face of monumental power of the real estate industry, the tyranny of zoning codes, the inertia of bureaucracies, and the sheer durability of things that have already been built. It is tempting to believe that the job of fixing cities is the untouchable terrain of distant authorities whom the state has deemed responsible. It is a terrible mistake to give in to this temptation (p. 295).

Re-making the city is up to all of us. Change to code of how we build it, and also change the code of how we think of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.