The best books on the history of cities

The Books I Picked & Why

The Economy of Cities

By Jane Jacobs

The Economy of Cities

Why this book?

This book discusses how the first cities formed, and how they operated. We assume they had to be centers of trade and production, but Jacobs really drills down into how that worked. In contrast to other scholars who argue cities emerged as agriculture grew, Jacobs suggests cities were the driving force behind agricultural development. Don’t be put off by the term “economy” if you’re not a numbers person, this isn’t a discussion of tables and percentages, but about the earliest cities would have created culture.


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The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

By Lewis Mumford

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

Why this book?

Mumford’s work on the nature of cities has been hugely influential over the last few decades. He writes in a very literary but accessible style about cities, as the notion of “urban history” was just coming into its own. For anyone who has wondered about cities as part of the human past, I’d recommend this book.


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City of Women

By Christine Stansell

City of Women

Why this book?

While this book is about New York, it offers great insights into the role of women in urban spaces that are relevant across the world. Stansell weaves together statistical and official records, court reports, press stories, and paints detailed pictures of the lives of women in the nineteenth-century city. This includes the range of employment women took, and their various strategies to resolve disputes, run businesses, and manage their lives. In a city as diverse as New York, this included women from all over the world.


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Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

By Edward Glaeser

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

Why this book?

Glaeser’s book is a fascinating, and celebratory work on how cities came to be - and improved humanity on the way. The creativity and technological improvements driven by cities are everywhere, and Glaeser makes readers think anew on how they’ve benefited from urban spaces - even if they don’t live in one.


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Building the Devil's Empire: French Colonial New Orleans

By Shannon Lee Dawdy

Building the Devil's Empire: French Colonial New Orleans

Why this book?

This book is about the city of New Orleans, and how it came to be, as an outpost of 3 empires in turn (the French, the Spanish, and the nascent United States). Its cultural mix gave it a rich identity, but also practical issues - whose legal system would be followed? What language should be used? This legacy created a particular urban environment, and Dawdy’s work brings out the most fascinating stories in how this city came to be.


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