The best books to design a workable, walkable, wonderful city

Mary Soderstrom Author Of Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future
By Mary Soderstrom

Who am I?

I like to say I'm a born-again pedestrian. After a childhood in car-friendly Southern California, I moved first to the San Francisco Bay Area and then to Montreal. There I discovered the pleasures of living in walkable cities, and over the years I've explored them in a series of books about people, nature, and urban spaces in which the problems of spread-out, concrete-heavy cities take a front-row seat. The impact of the way we've built our cities over the last 100 years is becoming apparent, as carbon dioxide rises, driving climate changes. We must change the way we live, and the books I suggest give some insights about what to do and what not to do.

I wrote...

Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future

By Mary Soderstrom,

Book cover of Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future

What is my book about?

Imagine a world without concrete: there’d be no skyscrapers, no highways, no subdivisions, no grand irrigation projects, no out-of-season vegetables, no cities as we know them. There would be a shortage of electricity, more mud in some places, more solitude in others. But because of the fossil fuels and other resources required to make concrete, there also would also be less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and less dramatic climate change. In Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future, Mary Soderstrom tells the story of concrete’s surprising past, extravagant present, and uncertain future with careful research, lively anecdotes, and thoughtful reflection.

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The books I picked & why

The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

By Le Corbusier, Frederick Etchells (translator),

Book cover of The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

Why did I love this book?

Read this book if you care about cities. True, you may want to throw it across the room at times (I did),  but it is one of the most influential books of the 20th century and you should know your enemies. Written shortly after World War I when automobiles were beginning to clog streets, its author Le Corbusier had good intentions. He thought narrow crowded streets should be replaced by apartment towers set on green lawns. He used concrete boldly, opened up the interiors of buildings so light could flood in, and insisted that residences be far away from industry and commerce. But while the model can work for luxury housing, it doesn't work when neighborhoods are destroyed to build these high-rise blocks, and separating work from home by automobile-only roads means urban sprawl. 

By Le Corbusier, Frederick Etchells (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The City of To-morrow and Its Planning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this 1929 classic, the great architect Le Corbusier turned from the design of houses to the planning of cities, surveying urban problems and venturing bold new solutions. The book shocked and thrilled a world already deep in the throes of the modern age.
Today it is revered as a work that, quite literally, helped to shape our world. Le Corbusier articulates concepts and ideas he would put to work in his city planning schemes for Algiers, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Geneva, Stockholm, and Antwerp, as well as schemes for a variety of structures from a…

Book cover of Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability

Why did I love this book?

David Owen cares about cities and climate change, but the solution he suggests may seem counter-intuitive. At least it seemed so to me, until I began to look around at my own relatively sustainable city, Montreal. Owen argues that dense cities are really more environmentally friendly than spread out ones, and if we're going to get a handle on carbon emissions we are going to have to live closer together.  He doesn't advocate high rises all over as Le Corbusiier would, but a mixture of housing heights tied to effective public transportation. He presents workable ideas that can change the world. 

By David Owen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this remarkable challenge to conventional thinking about the environment, David Owen argues that the greenest community in the United States is not Portland, Oregon, or Snowmass, Colorado, but New York, New York. Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares, as wastelands of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams. Yet residents of compact urban centers, Owen shows, individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Residents of Manhattan- the most densely populated place in…

Book cover of Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

Why did I love this book?

Don't worry if you really don't care about housing in London or Liverpool: you should read this book about what happens when a country gives high-rise housing its best shot, and then messes things up. It is partly a cautionary tale about what happens when support for ambitious housing projects is killed by right-wing politicians, but also a tribute to the people who thought at first they'd died and gone to heaven when they got a flat with inside plumbing.  

By John Grindrod,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Never has a trip from Croydon and back again been so fascinating. John Grindrod's witty and informative tour of Britain is a total treat'

CATHERINE CROFT, Director, Twentieth Century Society
Was Britain's postwar rebuilding the height of midcentury chic or the concrete embodiment of Crap Towns? John Grindrod decided to find out how blitzed, slum-ridden and crumbling 'austerity Britain' became, in a few short years, a space-age world of concrete, steel and glass.
On his journey he visits the sleepy Norfolk birthplace of Brutalism, the once-Blitzed city centre…

Book cover of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Why did I love this book?

Should be upfront about this: Taras is a neighbor and I see him riding his bike frequently. But he's also ridden public transportation around the world, and his book about what he found is profoundly inspiring. Public transit can work, it indeed must work if we're going to cut our carbon footprint and live in cities that are sustainable. It's full of great stories about his adventures: if you thought subways and buses are boring, he'll convince you otherwise.

By Taras Grescoe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"I am proud to call myself a straphanger," writes Taras Grescoe. The perception of public transportation in America is often unflattering - a squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk-driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car. Indeed, a century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the country with public transportation that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. But as the demand for petroleum is fast outpacing the world's supply, a revolution in transportation is under way. Grescoe explores the ascendance of…

The Kill

By Émile Zola, Brian Nelson (translator),

Book cover of The Kill

Why did I love this book?

Sometimes it's helpful, even encouraging, to discover that problems we face today were faced by people in the past.  Emile Zola wrote a series of novels about Paris in the mid-19th century at a time when the City of Light was being rebuilt along pretty extraordinary lines. At the same time that poor people were being tossed out of their substandard housing, some people were making fortunes speculating in real estate. The Kill focuses on the personal dramas of people on both sides of the equation, with quite a lot of sex thrown in to spice things up.

By Émile Zola, Brian Nelson (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'It was the time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and women.'

The Kill (La Curee) is the second volume in Zola's great cycle of twenty novels, Les Rougon-Macquart, and the first to establish Paris - the capital of modernity - as the centre of Zola's narrative world. Conceived as a representation of…

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