Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Charles Montgomery

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Charles Montgomery

As our views on the environment and resource allocation change, the idea of sprawling suburbs and the car as king are waning. For the first time in decades, people are moving back to urban centres. The question is not what is a better way to live, but rather, how can we be happy and healthy as inevitable densification continues. Charles Montgomery tackles this question and much more in his book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Doubleday Canada). The timely and important discussion of how and where we live is shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

This year will mark the 14th iteration of the prize, presented annually by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book addressing a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

The winner of the prize, who will receive $25,000, will be announced at Politics & the Pen on April 2, 2014, a gala that has become Ottawa's hottest ticket over the years. In addition to the finalists, the event draws hundreds of politicians, staffers, diplomats and philanthropists as well as playing hosts to dozens of respected Canadian authors.

Charles speaks with Open Book about chasing a Colombian mayor on a bicycle, what qualifies a book as political writing and the experience of programming an urban laboratory in New York City.

Visit Open Book in the lead up to the award announcement in order to catch interviews with all five acclaimed finalists for the 2014 prize!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted and how the project came about.

Charles Montgomery:

Happy City began with a bike ride through Bogotå, chasing the mayor who had used the Colombian capital as a laboratory for his ideas on wellbeing. Enrique Peñalosa insisted that by transforming the form and systems of his impoverished and violent city, he had actually made citizens happier. He also insisted that in the developed world we have been using our wealth to create cities that actually destroy happiness.

Could a city really be redesigned to build happiness? It was a thrilling idea, but the mayor couldn’t give me conclusive evidence of the design-emotion connection. So I set out to test the idea against science and evidence from other cities. The quest led me to the doorsteps of neuroscientists, psychologists, behavioural economists and urban activists, as well as landscapes of remarkable urban transformation around the world. It also led me to conduct my own informal urban experiments to understand the link between design and happiness.

OB:

In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book qualifies as political writing as opposed to simply non-fiction?

CM:

I’d say that a political book is ultimately about the interplay between power and ideology — and how they are used to shape our world. When I began Happy City, I didn’t believe I was writing a political book. I was wrong. City-building and city-shaping are ultimately political acts. They involve values-based decisions on how we’ll apportion resources and benefits. They involve conflict, and they produce winners and losers. Our cities are shaped far more by ideology than by pragmatic assessments of costs and benefits.

OB:

The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?

CM:

I’ve never been.

OB:

If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?

CM:

It’s a tossup between Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead and Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger. Jacobs offers a chilling vision of the future we’ll inhabit if we don’t make wiser collective choices. Grescoe, on the other hand, offers a sunnier narrative: in his adventures on public transit around the world he finds a vision of city life that is sustainable, resilient, and yes, happy.

OB:

If you win the prize, how will you celebrate?

CM:

I’ll use the funds to support new experiments to help understand the fascinating connection between urban form and human psychology.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

CM:

Half-way through writing Happy City I was invited to help program an urban laboratory initiated by the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I used the opportunity to collaborate with psychologists, neuroscientists and artists on a series of public experiments. Among other adventures, we tested the psychophysiological effects of public space in Manhattan. We found, for example, that certain sidewalk facades made people much happier than others. It was a thrilling new way to explore the city, and it set me on a new path. There are so many mysteries yet to be revealed about the effect that urban design has on human emotions and behaviour. My collaborators and I are continuing the journey.

Charles Montgomery is a writer and photojournalist. He has won accolades for his ambitious reportage, taut storytelling and iconoclastic essays. His first book, The Last Heathen: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia, won the 2005 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction. It was published internationally as The Shark God in 2006. Charles contributed to Way Out There, Explore Magazine's anthology of the best Canadian adventure writing. Since 2001, he has won four Western Magazine Awards, a National Magazine Award and the 2003 American Society of Travel Writer's Lowell Thomas Silver Award for best North American travel story.

For more information about the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, please visit the Writers' Trust of Canada website.

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