Introducing Urbanism: Top Books for Curious Novices

In January, I asked Where readers and contributors what books they’d recommend to introduce the basic concepts of urbanism to curious, non-expert friends. I asked for a short list of accessible, concise books.

Since the initial query more than 30 titles have been suggested. Because I was already familiar with only a handful of the books, I headed to the library to get better acquainted with at least some of the other suggestions.

Based on that library visit, on posted comments from readers, on behind-the-scenes advice from Where contributors and my interpretation—from my own very amateurish (and American) perspective—of what counts as “accessible” and “concise,” here are five books about the basics of urbanism that I’d now recommend to relatively clueless, but curious friends.

Almost all of the links in this post connect to Google Book Search.

The Top 5

1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961). At about 450 pages, “concise” is probably not the most apt description of this book. But, as this is the single best written, most accessible, most compelling book I’ve ever read about cities, I’m willing to forsake the concision criterion even in my first recommendation. If you want to know what can make cities pleasant, safe and interesting places to live, read this book. If you want to read one of the best non-fiction prose stylists of our time, read this book. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. As one Where reader put it: “It’s a great book for explaining why we care about all of this.”

2. The Option of Urbanism by Christopher Leinberger (2007). While not as fun to read as The Death and Life of Great American Cities or The Geography of Nowhere (see below), this slender volume briskly highlights difference between drivable sub-urban development and walkable urban development, and does a good job of explaining the benefits of walkable city neighborhoods. It’s good primer on the basics of density, zoning and the hidden subsidies fueling drivable sub-urban development.

3. The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler (1993). This book is an exploration—and excoriation—of the rise of suburbia and sprawl. It also explains how the more traditional patterns and places of city life and country life are superior to the “geography of nowhere.” Accessible and ferocious.

4. Cities Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz, with Norman Mintz (1998). According to a Where reader, this book is “in the spirit of Jacobs” and discusses “how existing cities can be improved with citizen participation in contrast to destructive master plans.” The book is filled with lots of specific ideas about how to improve downtown areas, all of them lavishly illustrated with real life examples from successful efforts in dozens of cities.

5. How Cities Work by Alex Marshall (2000). Squarely aimed at the lay person, this book seeks to discover what forces shape places and cities—and finds that one of the most powerful forces is political choices, particularly those having to do with transportation policy. A Where reader gave this recommendation: “It’s not comprehensive, of course, but it’s a good snack, possibly the kind that could interest a person in a larger meal.”

A Tall Stack of Other Suggestions

Many other titles were suggested. They’re all listed here in no particular order, with quoted comments—when available—from the Where readers and contributors who recommended them.

Cities of Tomorrow by Peter Hall is “a great history of urban planning, knowledge of which is essential for understanding modern cities.”

The Last Landscape by William Whyte “focuses on the benefits of relatively dense urban form.”

Good City Form by Kevin Lynch is a “very engaging overview of urban history and theory” with “compelling ideas for developing vibrant cities.”

The Granite Garden by Ann Whiston Spirn “introduces thoughtful ways of improving the relationships between cities and the ecosystems in which they’re built.”

Building Suburbia by Dolores Hayden covers the sociology and history of suburbia. “It's written in a way a layperson…can understand.”

Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred by Philip Bess “does a nice job” explaining “exactly why urban design matters.” It may not be a simple primer, but “a few of the chapters are perfect intros to the subject.”

The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999 by Ray Suarez is an “excellent introduction to the challenges experienced in aging, post-industrial cities, including Chicago, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.”

Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America by Gwendolyn Wright is “an essential resource for understanding the social movements and political processes that have shaped urban/suburban cultural landscapes.”

The Culture of Cities by Louis Mumford is a “great classic” by an “exceptional writer.” The book includes introductions to the ideas of Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes, two influential early modern urban planners.

Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson “does a great job of explaining how we ended up with the urban landscape we have,” and is “very accessible, too.”

The Power Broker by Robert Caro, while “not short at all, 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.”

Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas and “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill are good to read together because Koolhaas’s book “provides an essential perspective on why contemporary urbanism discussions are where they are today,” and Mill’s essay is a “classic for anyone who wants to learn about living with other people, things and places.”

Who's Afraid Of Niketown? by Friedrich von Borries “investigates the contemporary effect of global corporations on public space and urbanism.”

Books, essays, articles by J.B. Jackson because his “short, easily digestible” work “looks at cities and other environments in such a different way,” and “inspires people to think beyond the clichés.”

Psychogeography by Will Self is an “interesting anecdotal urbanist book.”

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon is “longish,” but provides historical perspective on urbanism issues.

The Essential William H. Whyte as a substitute for the out of print City: Rediscovering the Center by William H. Whyte.

"Junkspace" an essay by Rem Koolhaas.

A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb by Philip Langdon.

Poetics of Cities: Designing Neighborhoods that Work by Mike Greenberg.

The Living City: Thinking Big in a Small Way by Roberta Gratz.

To Scale: One Hundred Urban Plans by Eric Jenkins.

American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto by Sudhir Venkatesh.

Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Venkatesh.

(Photo from Flickr users danlorentz and docman. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)


Electronic Goose said...

Great list--I'm heading to the library now. Thanks for sharing.

Benjamin Hemric said...

I think your list is a good idea, but I think you make a very common mistake by leaving off a number of Jane Jacobs other books.

I submit that one doesn't even REALLY understand "Death and Life of Great American Cities," unless one also reads, "The Economy of Cities" (which is shorter and almost as readable, by the way).

The other Jacobs book that I highly recommend as helping explain what these two early books are REALLY about is "The Nature of Economies" -- which is indeed, quite short, and reads like a delightful short novel, or novella (in my opinion).

I'm tempted to suggest that people should read "The Nature of Economies" right away, right after reading "Death and Life . . ." because it is such a short and enjoyable "read" -- and might pique (sp?) one's curiosity and spur one to read "The Economy of Cities," which is short and enjoyable but does have some, perhaps, less "quick read" passages.

- - - - - -

P.S. -- I found your blog via "Market Urbanism" and have posted further about Jane Jacobs and these books on that blog. (One set of posts are somewhat "hidden" in a comment on anthills; and one set of posts is somewhat "hidden" in a comment on Obama's plans for a stimulus.)

-- Benjamin Hemric

Anonymous said...

Great list... It looks like I have some reading to do as I haven't read a couple of your top 5.

Anonymous said...

Great list, as soon as I'm done with my ARE's I'll start trying to get through these.

ClimateCate said...

I especially like the Leinberger book- super easy to read filled with ideas to help non-experts understand the reasons why suburbia has been set up the way it has- and the benefits of a walkable community.

Kevin said...

Great list, but no Suburban Nation? That book really helped clue me in on urbanism. It detailed a lot of the problems I'd sort of pondered in my own brain.

Thanks for all of the good work you do.

Anonymous said...

Glad you listed that Niketown book. It is really a brilliant piece of work.