Wanted: Best Books for Introduction to Urbanism

Let’s say you have a friend who wants to know what you’re talking about when you toss out phrases like “multiuse zoning,” “sprawl,” “density,” “urban infill,” “interconnected street girds.” Your friend also wants to know why you care about all this.

Let’s also stipulate that your friend doesn’t want to listen to yet another lecture from you on the subject.

What books would you recommend to this friend of yours?

Post your suggestions—any number of them—as comments to this post. Try to include a sentence or two about why you’re recommending a particular book.

Remember these are supposed to be books you’d recommend to a curious, non-expert friend with only a limited amount of time he or she is willing to devote to the subject—so think of concise, introductory-level books and keep your list short.

Next month, after soliciting advice from my fellow Where contributors (including any of their own suggestions), I’ll post a list of the top recommendations.

(Photo from Flickr user Dan Lorentz. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


petersigrist said...

I really like Cities Back from the Edge, by Roberta Gratz and Norman Mintz; The Last Landscape, by William Whyte; Good City Form, by Kevin Lynch; and The Granite Garden, by Ann Whiston Spirn.

Patrick said...

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a great introduction. Jane Jacobs writes without jargon and in a down-to-earth manner. It's a great book for explaining why we care about all of this.

Of course, you already knew that. It's already in your photo, after all.

Dan Lorentz said...

Great start.

Thanks to both of you.

Later, I may have to peg Peter down on a couple specifics for each book--specifics about what makes them recommendable.

Electronic Goose said...

Building Suburbia by Dolores Hayden was a great help to me. Her discussion covers sociological reasons alongside the history and it's written in a way a layperson like myself can understand.

petersigrist said...

Sorry for leaving out the reasons. I’ve included them here … I like Cities Back from the Edge because, in the spirit of Jacobs, the authors discuss how existing cities can be improved with citizen participation, in contrast to destructive masterplans. The Last Landscape offers a similar perspective, focusing on the benefits of relatively dense urban form. The Granite Garden introduces thoughtful ways of improving the relationships between cities and the ecosystems in which they're built. Good City Form is a very engaging overview of urban history and theory; it also includes compelling ideas for developing vibrant cities. I’ve found each of these books to be well written and practical without being overly technical.

Westy said...

I would definitely recommend Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred by Philip Bess, a fellow Chicagoan.

This is a good book that does a nice job of discussing why urbanism is an optimal design form. With his experience working with the CNU, there are several great case studies, and important info on exactly why urban design matters.

While the whole book may not meet the needs of a 'simple' primer on urbanism (it sometimes reads like a textbook), a few of the chapters would be perfect intros to the subject.

Eli Pousson said...

I would suggest, "The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999" by Ray Suarez. It is a excellent introduction to the challenges experienced in aging, post-industrial cities, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and emergent issues with continuing demographic changes. The book is 10 years old but provides relevant discussion of the factors that contributed to urban disinvestment and the range of strategies for community revitalization. I'd also suggest "Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America" by Gwendolyn Wright. It is an essential resource for understanding the social movements and political processes that have shaped urban/suburban cultural landscapes.

Anonymous said...

"How Cities Work" by Alex Marshall is a small-ish volume, geared to the lay person, and it views urbanism mostly through the lens of transportation. It's not comprehensive, of course, but it's a good snack, possibly the kind that could interest a person in a larger meal.

petersigrist said...

The Culture of Cities, by Louis Mumford, is another great classic. It includes interesting historical sections and introductions to the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes. Mumford is an exceptional writer, and the issues he discusses are still very relevant today.

Chachy said...

Crabgrass Frontier, by Kenneth Jackson. Does a great job of explaining how we ended up with the urban landscape we have. Very accessible, too.

(By the way, just found this blog. 'S really cool.)

Drew said...

Well, it's not short at all, but I'd recommend The Power Broker--Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses--to anyone who's willing to put in the time.

Length aside, it reads like a novel, and illustrates the state of city administration and urban planning during the past century better than anything else I've ever read.

Andrew said...

Good question... I would have to recommend a mixture of Koolhaas' "Delirious New York" and Mill's "On Liberty".

Koolhaas' take on American modernism, congestion and the city is always prescient (particularly for a retroactive manifesto). When one talks about the city, this book provides an essential perspective to understand why contemporary urbanism discussions are where they are today (and why people listen to Koolhaas). Mill's is a classic for anyone who wants to learn about living with other people, things and places.

(Great site! I just found this site last week)

Anonymous said...

I would highly recommend a recent book that investigates the contemporary effect of global corporations on public space and ubanism:

Who's Afraid Of Niketown?
by Friedrich von Borries


bp said...

I'd suggest Eric Jenkin's new book, "To Scale: One Hundred Urban Plans". This book looks at 100 different urban spaces, at the same scale, and dissects them through writing (roughly 500 words for each city), photographs, sketches and CAD drawings.

It may not have the urban planning speak, but it talks about the same issues in context.

Check it out:

Unknown said...

Sudhir Venkatesh's work must be considered in any such roundup:

AMERICAN PROJECT: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto

The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor

Both from Harvard University Press

Dan Lorentz said...

Thanks everyone for the suggestions and descriptions so far. We could use more, though...so keep them coming.

I'm not sure Robert Caro's The Power Broker, will make the final cut--because, at 15 trillion pages give or take a few, the book is a bit on the longish side--but it's definitely going on my personal reading list.

Naomi Sachs, ASLA, EDAC said...

Anything by J.B. Jackson, because he looks at cities and other environments in such a different way, and he inspires people to think beyond the cliches. Also, many of his essays are short and easily digestible.

Anonymous said...

"The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape" by James Kunstler. Also an essay entitled "Junkspace" by Rem Koolhaas. And I just got done with an interesting anecdotal urbanist book by Will Self entitled "Psychogeography". Enjoy

Anonymous said...

A second to The Geography of Nowhere.

Also, A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb by Philip Langdon and Poetics of Cities: Designing Neighborhoods that Work by Mike Greenberg. Both of these, written by journalists, are easily accessible.

For a historical perspective, but also long(ish), Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon.

To get readers to see where I'm coming from, another second to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, also The Essential William H. Whyte as a substitute for the out of print City: Rediscovering the Center by William H. Whyte and the genesis for the Project for Public Spaces, and The Living City: Thinking Big in a Small Way by Roberta Gratz (who also authored Cities Back from the Edge mentioned above), a historic preservation centered book. These three were the books that got me hooked!

Anonymous said...

Jane Jacobs work on cities and Hubbard's "City".

Anonymous said...

I agree with the post about the book titled "Who's Afraid of Niketown". At my Youtube channel I have explained a little about how this book relates to development underway here in Eugene, Oregon. You can find my channel at www.youtube.com/luddite333