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

The Books I Picked & Why

The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

By Le Corbusier, Frederick Etchells

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

Why 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. 


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

By David Owen

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

Why 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. 


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Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

By John Grindrod

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

Why 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.  


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Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

By Taras Grescoe

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

Why 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.


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The Kill

By Émile Zola, Brian Nelson

Book cover of The Kill

Why 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.


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