The best unexpected books about cities & urbanism

Mikael Colville-Andersen Author Of Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism
By Mikael Colville-Andersen

Who am I?

I’m an urban designer, author, and host of The Life-Sized City urbanism series - as well as its podcast and YouTube channel. I’ve worked in over 100 cities, trying to improve urban life and bring back bikes as transport. I came at this career out of left field and am happily unburdened by the baggage of academia. I've famously refrained from reading most of the (probably excellent) books venerated by the urbanism tribe, in order to keep my own urban thinking clear and pure. My expertise stems instead from human observation and I find far more inspiration in photography, literature, cinema, science, and especially talking to and working with the true experts: the citizens.

I wrote...

Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism

By Mikael Colville-Andersen,

Book cover of Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism

What is my book about?

If you don’t see the bicycle as part of the urban solution, you’re part of the problem. Nobody wants to be a problem, do they? This book is the repository for all my work experience, thinking, and philosophising about how we best can reestablish the bicycle as transport in our cities. From historical inspiration to best practice designs, with effective communication techniques and the value of direct observation thrown into the basket along the way.

Honestly, I couldn’t care less if you ride a bike or not. I’m not a cyclist at all. I just use a bike to get around. Let’s just understand why having high levels of citizen cyclists in cities is crucial in fighting our many urban ailments from the past car-centric century. And now we have the book to make it happen.

The books I picked & why

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The Poetics of Space

By Gaston Bachelard, Maria Jolas (translator),

Book cover of The Poetics of Space

Why this book?

I’ve tried to explain this book to people for years, with varying degrees of success. It’s odd considering I’ve read it ten times. Bachelard was a philosopher but this is a work of deeply-rooted poetry. It’s not really philosophy or analysis, this book. It’s more of a seductive, lyrical invitation inside Bachelard’s dreamy, passionate imagination.

It explores the concept of “home” and the distinctions of inside and outside. It has nothing to do with cities or urbanism at first glance, but the second time I read it I tried to superimpose it onto the urban context. The idea of a city as a home - a notion that the Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Johannes V. Jensen, planted in my head in his 1934 novel Gudrun. I still have trouble explaining how, but this book is the seed for many of my thoughts and philosophies about space and cities.

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

By Georges Perec, Marc Lowenthal (translator),

Book cover of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

Why this book?

We are coded as homo sapiens to look at each other. To observe, study, analyse our fellow creatures. One of the reasons I’ll never live in the country is that I’ll miss observing urban life. 

This is such a simple book with a simple premise. Perec recorded everything he saw while sitting at a café on a Parisian square over three days. When I lived in Paris in the 1990s, I had a dog-eared French version of this book and I dutifully went to the same place. Not to record my own observations but to try and see things that Perec might have seen twenty years prior.

A city-dweller regards their city. This book is at once nothing and yet it is everything about urban life. I found in Perec a comrade in arms. The romantic in me insists on believing that the seeds for my later urban observations lie among the pages of this book.

Energy and Equity

By Ivan Illich,

Book cover of Energy and Equity

Why this book?

"Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle."

Illich’s book - more of a long essay, really - remains astonishingly relevant almost fifty years on. It confirmed countless things that I sensed and suspected on the cusp of my career in urbanism many years ago. His rationality about transport, energy, and democracy is carved out of the finest literary granite. Criticism of this text merely runs off the rock like raindrops. It is my ultimate inspiration for working in urbanism and yet a constant source of dismay that our societies continue to neglect the wisdom within the words. The essay “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar” by André Gorz is a must-read companion to Illich’s visionary words.

A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of A Moveable Feast

Why this book?

I like being here with you but to be honest I'd rather be living in 1920s Paris, drinking with the Lost Generation. This book is the ultimate tableau vivant of a city, an age, and a gallery of characters. It shows the optimism of city dwellers, the possibilities of living in an urban landscape, and the trials and tribulations of urban, creative life. It is a portrait of a city and all that happens in it.

I was in Paris a week after the 2015 terrorist attacks and I visited the seas of flowers and memorials to mourn and cry. I was amazed to see countless copies of this book among the wilting flowers and scrawled messages. The French title translates as “Paris is a party”. This book became a powerful symbol of urban defiance and of freedom and it continues to define why I love cities so damn much.

Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town

By Richard Scarry,

Book cover of Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town

Why this book?

I read Scarry’s city books as a child and I read them with my children when they were young. The detailed descriptions of the richness of urban life remain impressive. It’s all spelled out. Economics, food security, circular economy, neighbours, small businesses, diversity (of animals). For fun you can compare older versions with newer ones and see the number of female characters increase, rightly ousting the Patriarchy from various jobs as the publishers responded to societal developments.

It is still a relevant cautionary tale about our car-centric, fossil-fueled reality. All those drivers crashing - “silly motorists!” and creating havoc. Coal mines happily illustrated without comment. Pigs eating pork hotdogs. My kids both noticed the shocking lack of bikes, but then again, they’re Copenhageners. If you dig this recommendation, then watch one of the best films about urbanism: Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

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