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.

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The books I picked & why

The Poetics of Space

By Gaston Bachelard, Maria Jolas (translator),

Book cover of The Poetics of Space

Why did I love 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.

By Gaston Bachelard, Maria Jolas (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Beloved and contemplated by philosophers, architects, writers, and literary theorists alike, Bachelard's lyrical, landmark work examines the places in which we place our conscious and unconscious thoughts and guides us through a stream of cerebral meditations on poetry, art, and the blooming of consciousness itself.

Houses and rooms; cellars and attics; drawers, chests and wardrobes; nests and shells; nooks and corners: no space is too vast or too small to be filled by our thoughts and our reveries.

With an introduction by acclaimed philosopher Richard Kearney and a foreword by author Mark Z. Danielewski.

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 did I love 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.

By Georges Perec, Marc Lowenthal (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Take it with you to any cafe in any city, and Perec will be both your drinking partner and your tour guide, drawing your attention to each little detail coming and going.” –Ian Klaus, CityLab

One overcast weekend in October 1974, Georges Perec set out in quest of the "infraordinary": the humdrum, the non-event, the everyday--"what happens," as he put it, "when nothing happens." His choice of locale was Place Saint-Sulpice, where, ensconced behind first one café window, then another, he spent three days recording everything to pass through his field of vision: the people walking by; the buses and…

Energy and Equity

By Ivan Illich,

Book cover of Energy and Equity

Why did I love 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.

By Ivan Illich,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A junkie without access to his stash is in a state of crisis. The 'energy crisis' that exists intermittently when the flow of fuel from unstable countries is cut off or threatened, is a crisis in the same sense. In this essay, Illich examines the question of whether or not humans need any more energy than is their natural birthright. Along the way he gives a startling analysis of the marginal disutility of tools. After a certain point, that is, more energy gives negative returns. For example, moving around causes loss of time proportional to the amount of energy which…

A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of A Moveable Feast

Why did I love 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.

By Ernest Hemingway,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked A Moveable Feast as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast remains one of Ernest Hemingway's most beloved works. Since Hemingway's personal papers were released in 1979, scholars have examined and debated the changes made to the text before publication. Now this new special restored edition presents the original manuscript as the author prepared it to be published.

Featuring a personal foreword by Patrick Hemingway, Ernest's sole surviving son, and an introduction by the editor and grandson of the author, Sean Hemingway, this new edition also includes a number of unfinished, never-before-published Paris sketches revealing experiences that Hemingway had with his son Jack and…

Book cover of Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town

Why did I love 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.

By Richard Scarry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Richard Scarry's classic book that takes readers all around town!

Join Lowly Worm, Huckle Cat, and other beloved characters for a day in Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town. Visit the school, the farm, the post office, and many more fun and exciting places in this classic book that teaches little ones all about what goes on in their very own communities.

A beautifully produced Faber-Scarry publication.

Praise for Richard Scarry:
'Awe-inspiring.' Dapo Adeola
'Treasure troves of detail.' Chris Mould
'A delight.' Sara Ogilvie
'What a talent.' David Tazzyman
'One of my favourite illustrators.' Allen Fatimaharan

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