The best books on time, space, and modern urbanism

Who am I?

I love cities and I teach about them. I was born in the capital of Sofia, Bulgaria, and landed in the US (mostly by chance) in 1993. Spent most of my professional life in US academia (Michigan, Virginia Tech, Harvard, Maryland, and now Georgia). I never stopped wondering how cities change and why American cities look and function so differently than European cities. So, I wrote a few books about cities, including Iron Curtains; Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space, which is about changes in East European Cities after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I wrote...

Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

By Sonia A. Hirt,

Book cover of Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

What is my book about?

So, what’s up with American cities? Everyone knows we sprawl more than anyone else in the world and we drive more than anyone else in the world. In my book, I argue that the reason we live this way because we have adopted local laws that mandate this lifestyle. Other developed societies (I reviewed the UK, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, and Australia) don’t have the same laws. We borrowed the laws from the Europeans a hundred years ago but then we changed them beyond recognition. So how about changing the laws?

The books I picked & why

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A History of Future Cities

By Daniel Brook,

Book cover of A History of Future Cities

Why this book?

Cities take a long time to make. Can you make or remake them quickly, like you make instant coffee or assemble fast food? Turns out you can… but you better be a czar or have a similar claim to authority and it may take some time for the product to mature into something worth visiting and living in. David Brook’s A History of Future Cities is one of the most informative and intriguing books on this topic. Beautifully written, the book examines four landmark cases of cities with strong utopian streaks, where powerful political regimes tried to compress time in space and celebrate their glory. The four cases are St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay, and Dubai. Read and dream of visiting. The book will leave you wishing to read about other cities of the same type, among them Washington DC, Brasilia, and Astana.

The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918

By Stephen Kern,

Book cover of The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918

Why this book?

This is a breathtaking exploration of how ideas of time and space changed between the 1880s and World War I. Stephen Kern’s mastery of all genres of the arts and literature and throughout the Western world—Europe, Russia, and the US—is beyond belief. No matter who is your favorite intellectual of this era, s/he is right in the narrative. We learn of the massive changes in culture that we owe to this momentous period of time, changes that are still very much with us today.

Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream

By Benjamin Hunnicutt,

Book cover of Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream

Why this book?

Nobody really knows what the “American Dream” is. The term was only coined in the 1930s and is used in many different lights. Perhaps it has to do with opportunity and success, perhaps with space and private property, perhaps with just having more stuff. By revisiting the writings of some of America’s founders and greatest 18th-19th-century intellectuals, Hunnicutt comes up with a surprising hypothesis: that the original dream was for people to have free time to spend in creative community activities. Goals relating to material advancement were only means to an end. It was time that early Americans considered as the greatest gift but we, their descendants, have been too busy to notice.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

By Marshall Berman,

Book cover of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity

Why this book?

A modern classic! A fascinating analysis of arts, culture, literature, and social and urban change. A breathtaking read of Goethe’s Faust to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and a sharp analysis of what Hausmann’s Parisian boulevards have to do with the prospects of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg and the highways of mid-century New York. Fantastic chapters on Karl Marx (from whom the title of the book is borrowed) and Charles Baudelaire. Written with poetic perfection!

The Condition of Postmodernity

By David Harvey,

Book cover of The Condition of Postmodernity

Why this book?

A sweeping study and critique of modern culture! If you are looking for a comprehensive and passionate analysis of time and space in the “late capitalist era,” this is the one to read. Nobody has written more authoritatively on modern and post-modern “time-space compression” (you have to read the book to see what this means). Harvey’s intellectual breadth and depth are astonishing. No wonder he is one of the most cited scholars of our time.

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