The best books about urban design

Matthew Carmona Author Of Public Places Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design
By Matthew Carmona

The Books I Picked & Why

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs

Book cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Why this book?

The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenged the way we view cities when it was written in the early 1960s.  Instead of seeing cities as problems to be solved by moving people out of them or dividing them up with roads, Jane Jacobs made the argument that cities were about people, and the everyday lives of ordinary people – lived together, generate huge social, economic value. I always say to my own students, if you read nothing else while at UCL (apart from my own books of course!) you should read this. It is as relevant today as when it was first written.

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The Concise Townscape

By Gordon Cullen

Book cover of The Concise Townscape

Why this book?

I love dipping into this book. I first fell in love with it when studying for my postgraduate architecture degree when its images and poetic language captured my attention and I decided, as a result, to do a dissertation on the townscape of Nottingham (where I was studying). The book reminds me that the way places are shaped helps to inspire emotions in us, and if we shape them positively then those emotions will be positive, reinforcing our sense of well-being and helping us to love the places that we live. This book taught me how to look at cities, I highly recommend it.

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The Image of the City

By Kevin Lynch

Book cover of The Image of the City

Why this book?

This third selection was published contemporaneously with the first two, but while the first two are really polemics, this book reports on empirical research. Perhaps because of that, it may seem a little dry, but the messages it has for us about the way we perceive cities are profound (albeit they have since been challenged). If you want to understand urban design then Kevin Lynch’s body of work is a must, and this is the best place to start.  

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A New Theory of Urban Design

By Christopher Alexander

Book cover of A New Theory of Urban Design

Why this book?

This book reports on a research project, this time undertaken by Christopher Alexander and his students.  It is one of a number of books that attempts to ask deep questions about how places grow, and in particular about how they can grow positively in a manner that we instinctively feel to be ‘good.' Like Cullen’s book, this deeply influenced my own studies, this time of planning, when I remember conducting an experiment focused on piecemeal growth with a fellow student. The project emulated Alexander’s method and taught me a key lesson that has informed my own work ever since, namely that urban design is primarily a process. Get the process right and you are much more likely to get the outcomes you desire.

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Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space

By Jan Gehl

Book cover of Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space

Why this book?

Jan Gehl’s classic book Life Between Buildings makes the passionate case that Gehl has continued to advocate throughout his life that cities are for people not cars. In this respect, he echoes some of Jane Jacobs's arguments, but whereas the target of her ire was big developers (both public and private) for him it was all of us and the need for us to leave our cars at home and rejoice in the city as a place to walk, cycle and interact. Much of my own research has focused on public spaces and how we use and manage them. This book provides a great introduction.

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