The best books on cities and their power to change lives and attitudes

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in a small village in a very rural part of Scotland. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that I would have an interest in the urban. Cities, especially big cities, seemed wonderfully exciting when I was growing up, full of mystery and promise, intoxicating, transgressive, with a hint of danger and a whiff of excitement. That fascination has stayed with me throughout my academic career as I have explored different facets of the urban experience. I am aware of the growing inequality but remain optimistic about the progressive possibilities and redemptive power of the urban experience to change lives and attitudes.


I wrote...

The Unequal City

By John Rennie Short,

Book cover of The Unequal City

What is my book about?

The Unequal City tells the story of urban change. A number of trends are examined, including the role of liquid capital; the resurgence of the population; the construction of megaprojects, and hosting of global megaevents; the role of the new rich; and the emergence of a new middle class. This book explores the reasons behind the displacement of the poor to the suburbs and beyond. Drawing upon case studies from around the world, it highlights the reuse of older industrial spaces, the greening of the cities, growing inequalities, and the securitization of the public spaces. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cities in Civilization

John Rennie Short Why did I love this book?

A magisterial review of the role of cities in economic and social change. Superbly written it is packed with information on cities at significant periods in social and economic transformation. The writer’s love of cities and their role in innovative change are crystal clear. He is so optimism about our urban futures that he gives me hope 

By Peter Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cities in Civilization as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ranging over 2,500 years, Cities in Civilization is a tribute to the city as the birthplace of Western civilization. Drawing on the contributions of economists and geographers, of cultural, technological, and social historians, Sir Peter Hall examines twenty-one cities at their greatest moments. Hall describes the achievements of these golden ages and outlines the precise combinations of forces -- both universal and local -- that led to each city's belle epoque.

Hall identifies four distinct expressions of civic innovation: artistic growth, technological progress, the marriage of culture and technology, and solutions to evolving problems. Descriptions of Periclean Athens, Renaissance Florence,…


Book cover of The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844: Frederick Engels

John Rennie Short Why did I love this book?

The boring title masks a great book written by Marx’s collaborator. It has all the anger and verve of an angry young man appalled by the conditions of English cities in the mid-nineteenth century. It is classic that reads as it was written yesterday. It is not only evocatively descriptive it also passionately engaged with moral outrage. A classic of urban writing and social concern.

By Frederick Engels, Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of the proletariat in England begins with the second half of the last century, with the invention of the steam-engine and of machinery for working cotton. These inventions gave rise, as is well known, to an industrial revolution, a revolution which altered the whole civil society; one, the historical importance of which is only now beginning to be recognised. England is the classic soil of this transformation, which was all the mightier, the more silently it proceeded; and England is, therefore, the classic land of its chief product also, the proletariat. Only in England can the proletariat be…


Book cover of Capital: The Eruption of Delhi

John Rennie Short Why did I love this book?

It reads like a great novel but is a great work of non-fiction. The subject is India’s capital as it undergoes massive change and growing polarization. The book gets under the surface of change to reveal some of its costs and consequences. The book is a great blend of reportage, political critique, and sympathetic accounts of the varied citizenry, from the very wealthy to the very poor. A fascinating and empathetic account of rapid change in one of the city's largest cities in one of the world's most populous countries as it both fashions and is impacted by globalization. 

By Rana Dasgupta,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Capital as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**Winner of the 2017 Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage**

**Short-listed for the Orwell Prize and for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize**

An extraordinary portrait of the fastest-growing city in the world-and the rise of a new global elite

Since the opening up of India's economy in 1991, wealth has poured into the country, and especially into Delhi. Capital bears witness to the astonishing metamorphosis of India's capital city, charting its emergence from a rural backwater to the center of India's new elites. No other place on earth better embodies the breakneck, radically disruptive nature of the global…


Book cover of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

John Rennie Short Why did I love this book?

A book that gives a thick description of poverty and rental property in the American city. Its subject is eviction and how people get moved out of their homes in informed yet heartwrenching detail. It is deeply researched work that to gives a voice to those on the sharp edge of economic marginality and social dislocation.

By Matthew Desmond,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Evicted as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*WINNER OF THE 2017 PULITZER PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION*
'Beautifully written, thought-provoking, and unforgettable ... If you want a good understanding of how the issues that cause poverty are intertwined, you should read this book' Bill Gates, Best Books of 2017

Arleen spends nearly all her money on rent but is kicked out with her kids in Milwaukee's coldest winter for years. Doreen's home is so filthy her family call it 'the rat hole'. Lamar, a wheelchair-bound ex-soldier, tries to work his way out of debt for his boys. Scott, a nurse turned addict, lives in a gutted-out trailer. This is…


Book cover of Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City

John Rennie Short Why did I love this book?

The writer loves Amsterdam that much is clear. He deftly shows how this one city grew from the most unpromising location to become not only a great city in its own right, but also the city where tolerance, markets, and the ideals of liberal tolerant capitalist society were forged and burnished. Our modern liberal cosmopolitanism was created in Amsterdam. We owe a great deal to Amsterdam and its citizens. 

By Russell Shorto,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Amsterdam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Amsterdam is not just any city. Despite its relative size it has stood alongside its larger cousins - Paris, London, Berlin - and has influenced the modern world to a degree that few other cities have. Sweeping across the city's colourful thousand year history, Amsterdam brings the place to life: its sights and smells; its politics and people. Concentrating on two significant periods - the late 1500s to the mid 1600s and then from the Second World War to the present, Russell Shorto's masterful biography looks at Amsterdam's central preoccupations. Just as fin-de-siecle Vienna was the birthplace of psychoanalysis, seventeenth…


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I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

Book cover of I Meant to Tell You

Fran Hawthorne Author Of I Meant to Tell You

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Museum guide Foreign language student Runner Community activist Former health-care journalist

Fran's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not a criminal, she stumbles into other secrets that will challenge what she thought she knew about her own family, her friend, Russ—and herself.

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

What is this book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not…


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