The best books about the exciting life of cities

Who am I?

Growing up in a Dutch city, I vividly remember witnessing the excitement of urban life through the windows of a streetcar, on foot, or by bike. Soon, I began to recreate this excitement by drawing maps of imaginary cities of my own. My small towns turned into entire regions, their streets coming to life as I closed my eyes. I essentially turned my childhood fascination into my job, as I now study, design, and teach students how to improve cities. Our best cities are places where citizens can interact with one another, overcoming social, economic, and environmental evolutions and revolutions. I never cease to be fascinated with the key to these everlasting cities.

I wrote...

Dream City: Creation, Destruction, and Reinvention in Downtown Detroit

By Conrad Kickert,

Book cover of Dream City: Creation, Destruction, and Reinvention in Downtown Detroit

What is my book about?

When I first stepped foot in downtown Detroit decades ago, I understood that this was a place like no other. I was stunned that downtown’s beautiful collection of buildings could be so abandoned and neglected. From that moment on, I was hooked. I had to understand what happened. Over the years, downtown Detroit only became weirder. Wrecking balls have made way for construction cranes. Vacant skyscrapers are now filled with a new generation of urbanites. But walk only a few blocks in either direction and the music still stops. My book Dream City tells the story of how this landscape of contrasts came to be. It illustrates two centuries of conflicting dreams and nightmares of downtown’s power players and the landscape they left behind. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Conrad Kickert Why did I love this book?

You simply cannot understand the city without understanding the society that brings it to life. Over six decades ago, Jane Jacobs upended the professions that governed, built, and increasingly destroyed cities by describing how cities do not thrive on drawing boards, but only as lived and altered by actual citizens. Her work is at once a manifesto against the status quo, a vivid description of the microcosm of urban life, and a manual for how to improve cities. Jacobs really opened my eyes to cities as systems of ‘organized complexity,’ essentially constantly re-materializing reflections of the many daily wishes and experiences of urban societies. While Jacobs laid the foundation of modern urban science with this statement, we still struggle to understand, accommodate, and leverage her desired urban complexity today.

By Jane Jacobs,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Death and Life of Great American Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic text, Jane Jacobs set out to produce an attack on current city planning and rebuilding and to introduce new principles by which these should be governed. The result is one of the most stimulating books on cities ever written.

Throughout the post-war period, planners temperamentally unsympathetic to cities have been let loose on our urban environment. Inspired by the ideals of the Garden City or Le Corbusier's Radiant City, they have dreamt up ambitious projects based on self-contained neighbourhoods, super-blocks, rigid 'scientific' plans and endless acres of grass. Yet they seldom stop to look at what actually…

Book cover of Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space

Conrad Kickert Why did I love this book?

Key to understanding cities is also to know how people experience them. Thousands of miles away but only a few years after Jacobs’ manifesto, Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl fascinatingly describes how people experience and behave in cities. We can use Gehl’s psychological and experiential lens to improve our urban environment, not designing buildings and cities just to appease other designers, politicians, or developers, but to real end users. Gehl’s original work has been translated into dozens of languages and expanded into one of the world’s foremost urban design firms. As an urban designer and researcher, Gehl’s book reminds me every day to focus first on people, then on space, and only then on buildings. 

By Jan Gehl,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Life Between Buildings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first Danish language version of this book, published in 1971, was very much a protest against the functionalistic principles for planning cities and residential areas that prevailed during that period. The book carried an appeal to show concern for the people who were to move about between buildings, and it urged an understanding of the subtle, almost indefinable - but definite - qualities, which have always related to the interaction of people in public spaces, and it pointed to the life between buildings as a dimension of architecture that needs to be carefully treated. Now 40 years later, many…

Book cover of Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention

Conrad Kickert Why did I love this book?

To understand cities today, you also have to understand why and how they were built to begin with. After all, our environment contains the materialization of previous decisions – we should know why those were made! Through the story of over a dozen global cities, historian Ben Wilson demonstrates how cities are concentrations of hopes, dreams, power, and conflict. While many great historians like Lewis Mumford and Stephen Hall have preceded him with excellently detailed urban history books of their own, this book stands out in its readability, attention to detail, and especially its coverage of global cities. After all, the urban future of most of the world lies beyond the Global North, and this broad survey shows the vast differences in urbanism between cultures.

By Ben Wilson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the Sunday Times bestselling author, a dazzling, globe-spanning history of humankind's greatest invention: the city.

'Brilliant...enchanting' Evening Standard 'Exhilarating' New York Times

The story of the city is the story of civilisation. From Uruk and Babylon to Baghdad and Venice, and on to London, New York, Shanghai and Lagos, Ben Wilson takes us through millennia on a thrilling global tour of the key urban centres of history.

Rich with individual characters, scenes and snapshots of daily life, Metropolis is at once the story of these extraordinary places and of the vital role they have played in making us who…

Book cover of The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History

Conrad Kickert Why did I love this book?

We can understand cities not only through their societies, their experience, and their history, but also by studying their physical form. Spiro Kostof describes how cities across the world have distinct yet still interrelated patterns of streets, blocks, plots, and buildings. Rather than taking a chronological approach, Kostof illustrates the form of cities through time and space through four main types of urban form, from organic shapes and grids to diagrams and grand interventions. If you look at your own city, you will likely find a combination of all of the above! This is one of the first books on cities I bought as a teenager, and it really inspired me to study and improve the form of our urban environments.

By Spiro Kostof,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Spanning the ages and the globe, Spiro Kostof explores the city as a "repository of cultural meaning" and an embodiment of the community it shelters. Widely used by both architects and students of architecture, The City Shaped won the AIA's prestigious book award in Architecture and Urbanism. With hundreds of photographs and drawings that illustrate Professor Kostof's innovative ideas, this has become one of the most important works on urbanization.

Book cover of The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

Conrad Kickert Why did I love this book?

Read away, but the best way to understand cities is to go out and see them for yourself! This fun-to-read book is an excellent ‘travel guide’ for seeing all the different elements of cities that surround us on our everyday walks. From bollards and street lamps to entire street grids, cellphone systems, and even the names of the places we live and visit—all these parts and dimensions of our cities are the result of conscious decisions and debates. The authors vividly describe the back story of many urban objects and systems we often just take for granted, and they provide a plethora of great illustrations to show you what they mean. Trust me, after reading this book you’ll never see cities the same way.

By Roman Mars, Kurt Kohlstedt,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The 99% Invisible City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Out now: The most entertaining and fascinating book about architecture and design, from the wildly popular podcast 99% Invisible.

A New York Times Bestseller

'Full of surprises and quirky information . . . a fascinating journey through the over-familiar.' - Financial Times, Best Books of 2020

'[A] diverse and enlightening book . . . The 99% Invisible City is altogether fresh and imaginative when it comes to thinking about urban spaces.' -The New York Times Book Review

'A delightful book about the under-appreciated wonders of good design' - Tim Harford, bestselling author of The Undercover Economist and Fifty…

You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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