The best books to understand urban design for human health & happiness

R Bruce Stephenson Author Of Portland's Good Life: Sustainability and Hope in an American City
By R Bruce Stephenson

Who am I?

I was fortunate to grow up in a typical 1960s neighborhood where the good life was an option. This was the storyline in The Wonder Years, and it was not just saccharine reminiscence. The physical environment defined sustainability: suburbs marked the distinction between country and city, obesity was not an epidemic, Nature-Deficit Disorder was unknown, most children walked to school, and vehicle miles traveled were 50 percent lower. If home sizes were smaller, face-to-face interaction was more prevalent and despair less common. I’ve worked to extend this privilege of place on sustainable lines because it is essential to solving the existential crises of our time—structural racism and climate change.  


I wrote...

Portland's Good Life: Sustainability and Hope in an American City

By R Bruce Stephenson,

Book cover of Portland's Good Life: Sustainability and Hope in an American City

What is my book about?

Aristotle equated civilization to the good life—private citizens devoted to the common good—which make cities a blessing to humanity. Iconic urbanist Lewis Mumford championed the good life to balance modernity’s “goods life,” and build pedestrian-scaled, sustainable cities to curtail suburban sprawl. Portland championed Mumford’s vision, an initiative that led to the nation’s first climate action plan.

In Portland’s Good Life, the author sells his car and moves to the Pearl District—a dissolute warehouse area transformed into a prototype urban neighborhood—to experience the good life and report back to his hometown of Orlando, which adopted a climate action plan modeled on Portland. Expectations are tempered after the real estate market explodes and affordable housing and sheltering the homeless becomes Portland’s paramount issue. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape

By Charles Beveridge, Paul Rocheleau (photographer),

Book cover of Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape

Why this book?

A richly illustrated presentation of a foundational figure, Olmsted believed that parks were integral to physical and mental health and he designed the park to give citizens immediate and visceral contact with nature. His genius was to meld art and psychology on functional lines to produce settings of extraordinary beauty. After his initial masterpiece, Central Park, his vision broadened as he planned his projects in a more comprehensive manner. Riverside, Illinois was an exemplary suburb that harmonized with nature, while Boston’s Emerald Necklace’s array of parks linked by greenways and pedestrian paths was a prototype park system and cultural statement. Its interconnected network of transcendental oases allowed escape from the strident, accelerated movement of a profit-propelled society. Like Henry David Thoreau sauntering through the Concord countryside, urban dwellers could move through the city to their own tune. A timeless vision, it is why Olmsted still inspires the good life of the American city.

Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape

By Charles Beveridge, Paul Rocheleau (photographer),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A man of passionate vision and drive, Frederick Law Olmsted defined and named the profession of landscape architecture and designed America's most beloved parks and landscapes of the past century--New York's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the Biltmore Estate, and many others. During a remarkable forty-year career that began in the mid-1800s, Olmsted created the first park systems, urban greenways, and planned surburban residential communities in this country. He was a pivotal figure in the movement to create and preserve natural parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Niagra Falls. He also contrbuted to the design of…


The Culture of Cities

By Lewis Mumford, Mark Crispin Miller (editor),

Book cover of The Culture of Cities

Why this book?

Mixing philosophic insight with the study of history, biology, and social science, Mumford’s penetrating analysis laid bare the prospects and pitfalls of American culture as no writer had done before. The Great Depression revealed the inability to build stable well-balanced communities that Mumford traced to a pioneer heritage predicated on exploiting resources. Setting humanity’s potential within nature’s prescribed limits, The Culture of Cities articulated the next stage in human evolution: balancing "ecological relations" and “consumer desires.” He envisioned a regional city that harmonized the “urban, rural, and primeval landscapes” that prefigured sustainability: “people in all their ecological relations” inhabiting “the compact and coherent form of the actual environment.” The goal, he concluded, was to sustain “the richest types of human culture and the fullest span of human life.”

The Culture of Cities

By Lewis Mumford, Mark Crispin Miller (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A classic work advocating ecological urban planning—from a civic visionary and former architecture critic for the New Yorker.

Considered among the greatest works of Lewis Mumford—a prolific historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and longtime architecture critic for the New Yorker—The Culture of Cities is a call for communal action to “rebuild the urban world on a sounder human foundation.” First published in 1938, this radical investigation into the human environment is based on firsthand surveys of North American and European locales, as well as extensive historical and technological research. Mumford takes readers from the compact, worker-friendly streets of medieval hamlets…


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 is a sacred text that documents how urban renewal turned complex interwoven neighborhoods into dyspeptic enclaves. For Jacobs, diversity was a city’s lifeblood and harmonizing a mix of people, uses, buildings, incomes, and transportation options defined urban planning. This maxim centered the effort to integrate what were previously deemed separate uses—housing, retail, bus service, and parking—to create livable urban cores designed to the elixir of the “sidewalk ballet.” The pedestrian-scaled neighborhood produced the informal face-to-face contacts that generates, Jacobs wrote, the "small change" that forms “social capital," defined by mutual concern, sense of belonging, and helpfulness. Today we know that the wealth of social capital is priceless, as its life-enhancing qualities defines longer life expectancies.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Death and Life of Great American Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic text, Jane Jacobs set out to produce an attack on current city planning and rebuilding and to introduce new principles by which these should be governed. The result is one of the most stimulating books on cities ever written.

Throughout the post-war period, planners temperamentally unsympathetic to cities have been let loose on our urban environment. Inspired by the ideals of the Garden City or Le Corbusier's Radiant City, they have dreamt up ambitious projects based on self-contained neighbourhoods, super-blocks, rigid 'scientific' plans and endless acres of grass. Yet they seldom stop to look at what actually…


Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

By Charles Montgomery,

Book cover of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

Why this book?

This accomplished journalist documents how the behavioral sciences help us “see our city streets, hearts, and mobility systems as emotional infrastructure that can make or break the health or happiness of our citizens.” Like Mumford, he traces the Good Life Aristotle ascribed to the city to the agora of Classical Greece, a place where market demands and civic virtue intertwined. Such spaces foster the face-to-face relationships that define happiness, and the Happy City is invested in the sidewalk ballet. It is also a green city that builds on Olmsted’s insights. Networks of small greens and native landscaping provide the ecological function and mental refreshment for pedestrians that is vital to a carbon-free lifestyle. A score of examples illustrate this “new freedom to choose how to move and how to live.” Grounded in history and science, this is not only a feel-good book, but a primer to meet the existential challenge of climate change.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

By Charles Montgomery,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Happy City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Happy City is the story of how the solutions to this century's problems lie in unlocking the secrets to great city living

This is going to be the century of the city. But what actually makes a good city? Why are some cities a joy to live in?

As Charles Montgomery reveals, it's not how much money your neighbours earn, or how pleasant the climate is that makes the most difference. Journeying to dozens of cities - from Atlanta to Bogota to Vancouver - he talks to the new champions of the happy city to explore the urban innovations already…


Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

By Peter Calthorpe,

Book cover of Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Why this book?

“Our cities and towns have been on a high carbon diet—and our metropolitan regions have become obese,Peter Calthorpe states. Plying a generation of path-breaking work, he reveals how shifting to urbanism, “compact and walkable development,” can mitigate climate change and secure health and happiness. The metrics he presents are essential reading. Three types of neighborhoods—urban, compact, and sprawl—are assessed for their impact on land consumption, energy use, infrastructure, and utility cost, vehicle miles traveled, and greenhouse gas emissions. The information delivers a clear message: technology will not save us, but a lifestyle change will. It is “not radical,” Calthorpe writes, “but simply a shift from large lot single family homes” to the “streetcar suburbs” that once flourished in American cities. This seemingly simple solution is a vast undertaking, but the blueprint is fresh, and the next step requires, as Olmsted averred, “the best application of the arts of civilization to which mankind has yet attained.”

Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

By Peter Calthorpe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the beginning of his career, Peter Calthorpe has been a leading innovator in sustainable building projects, sustainable development, and walkable communities. A leader in the New Urbanism Movement, he is an important resource for solutions to current problems of urban sprawl, suburban isolation, and the related problems of outsized energy consumption and an outsized share of world emissions. According to 'Ecological Urbanism', relentless and thoughtless development have created a way of living that brings us to a point of reckoning regarding energy, climate change and the way we shape our communities. The answer to these crises is 'Sustainable Development',…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in urban planning, sustainable development, and cities?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about urban planning, sustainable development, and cities.

Urban Planning Explore 32 books about urban planning
Sustainable Development Explore 14 books about sustainable development
Cities Explore 29 books about cities

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Just Kids, Court and Garden, and The Seduction of Place if you like this list.