The best books about cities

9 authors have picked their favorite books about cities and why they recommend each book.

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The Ancient City

By Arjan Zuiderhoek,

Book cover of The Ancient City

Historians of Greece and Rome have been arguing about how to describe ancient cities on and off since the eighteenth century and some of their debates have got stuck deep in the mud. This little book offers the best way out of these impasses. It is super clear, really up to date and incorporates the very latest research. Especially good on economy and society.

Who am I?

I learned to dig as a teenager in the school holidays and studied the ancient world at Oxford and Cambridge before beginning my career as a university teacher. I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world for my work, and have spent time living in some amazing cities including Paris, London, Madrid, and Rome. I love exploring new urban landscapes from Moscow to Lusaka, Såo Paulo to Toronto and I am looking forward this summer to moving to another great metropolis, Los Angeles.

I wrote...

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History

By Greg Woolf,

Book cover of The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History

What is my book about?

The growth of cities around the world in the last two centuries is the greatest episode in our urban history, but it is not the first. Three thousand years ago most of the Mediterranean basin was a world of villages; a world without money or writing, without temples for the gods or palaces for the mighty. Over the centuries that followed, however, cities appeared in many places around the Inland Sea, built by Greeks and Romans, and also by Etruscans and Phoenicians, Tartessians and Lycians, and many others. Most were tiny by modern standards, but they were the building blocks of all the states and empires of antiquity. The greatest--Athens and Corinth, Syracuse and Marseilles, Alexandria and Ephesus, Persepolis and Carthage, Rome and Byzantium--became the powerhouses of successive ancient societies, not just political centers but also the places where ancient art and literatures were created and accumulated. And then, half way through the first millennium, most withered away, leaving behind ruins that have fascinated so many who came after.


By Ben Wilson,

Book cover of Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention

The central premise of Metropolis is that cities have been the great incubators of new ideas in politics, religion, and technology. Wilson argues convincingly that cities are humanity’s greatest invention since they created the necessary ingredients to creating most other inventions. He covers dozens of major urban developments from around the world since the dawn of history thousands of years ago. From the world’s first city, Uruk, in present-day Iraq nearly 5000 years ago, we are taken on a tour of fascinating cities that during their heyday were great centers of culture, learning, commerce, science and shows how they contributed to global history in a unique way at a key juncture in time. Athens, Baghdad, London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris – they all have fascinating pasts that reflected and helped to develop the modern world. There is certainly a lot of information to digest but it is presented in…

Who am I?

Stephen R. Bown has has written ten books on the history of exploration, science, and ideas – including books on the medical mystery of scurvy, the Treaty of Tordesillas, the lives of Captain George Vancouver, and of Roald Amundsen and a doomed Russian sea voyage. His books have been published in multiple English-speaking territories, translated into nine languages, and shortlisted or won many awards. His latest book is a sweeping history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the English monopoly that had a profound influence on the development of North America over 200 years.

I wrote...

The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire

By Stephen R. Bown,

Book cover of The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire

What is my book about?

The story of the Hudson's Bay Company, dramatic and adventurous and complex, is the story of modern Canada's creation. And yet it hasn't been told in a book for over thirty years, and never in such depth and vivid detail as in Stephen R. Bown's exciting new telling.

The City in History

By Lewis Mumford,

Book cover of The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

Mumford’s work on the nature of cities has been hugely influential over the last few decades. He writes in a very literary but accessible style about cities, as the notion of “urban history” was just coming into its own. For anyone who has wondered about cities as part of the human past, I’d recommend this book.

Who am I?

I became interested in cities through my research on culture in Asia. I came to appreciate how much cities generate culture - and are the exchange points for different ideas. I’ve hosted a podcast on urban history, edited a book (Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience), and written about urban space for various magazines and websites.

I wrote...

Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars

By Katrina Gulliver,

Book cover of Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars

What is my book about?

At the dawn of the 1930s, a new empowered and liberated image of the female was taking root in popular culture in the West. This 'modern woman' archetype was also penetrating into Eastern cultures, however, challenging the Chinese and Japanese historical norm of the woman as homemaker, servant, or geisha. Through a focus on the writings of the Western women who engaged with the Far East, and the Eastern writers and personalities who reacted to this new global gender communication by forming their own separate identities, Katrina Gulliver reveals the complex redefining of the self taking place in a crucial time of political and economic upheaval.

The Modern Woman in China and Japan is an important contribution to gender studies and will appeal to historians and scholars of China and East Asia as well as to those studying Asian and American literature.

Cities in Civilization

By Peter Hall,

Book cover of Cities in Civilization

A magisterial review of the role of cities in economic and social change. Superbly written it is packed with information on cities at significant periods in social and economic transformation. The writer’s love of cities and their role in innovative change are crystal clear. He is so optimism about our urban futures that he gives me hope 

Who am I?

I grew up in a small village in a very rural part of Scotland. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that I would have an interest in the urban. Cities, especially big cities, seemed wonderfully exciting when I was growing up, full of mystery and promise, intoxicating, transgressive, with a hint of danger and a whiff of excitement. That fascination has stayed with me throughout my academic career as I have explored different facets of the urban experience. I am aware of the growing inequality but remain optimistic about the progressive possibilities and redemptive power of the urban experience to change lives and attitudes.

I wrote...

The Unequal City

By John Rennie Short,

Book cover of The Unequal City

What is my book about?

The Unequal City tells the story of urban change. A number of trends are examined, including the role of liquid capital; the resurgence of the population; the construction of megaprojects, and hosting of global megaevents; the role of the new rich; and the emergence of a new middle class. This book explores the reasons behind the displacement of the poor to the suburbs and beyond. Drawing upon case studies from around the world, it highlights the reuse of older industrial spaces, the greening of the cities, growing inequalities, and the securitization of the public spaces. 

Thrilling Cities

By Ian Fleming,

Book cover of Thrilling Cities

My husband and I have spent three decades travelling the world in search of great drinks and great drink stories. You could say this one volume ignited a wanderlust in us both when we first kicked off our drinks writing career. Written between 1959 and 1960, some of the places mentioned don’t exist any longer but brought back fond memories for me. The Musket & Henrickson pharmacy in Chicago which had a late-night café frequented by Playboy Club entertainers and mafiosi is just one example. What Fleming offered in his portrayals of Hong Kong, Macau, Tokyo, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Naples, and Monte Carlo undoubtedly inspired Anthony Bourdain’s portrayals of places in his fabulous TV series.

Who am I?

I’ve been researching and writing with my co-author husband Jared Brown about spirits and mixed drinks for three decades. After writing more than three dozen books plus hundreds of articles about the history and origins of alcoholic beverages, you could say I am addicted to the topic in a big way. While we’ve travelled and tasted drinks around the world we’ve also amassed a few thousand books on the subject. It’s served as a launch point of our secondary careers as drinks consultants and master distillers for global spirits brands. I'm currently finishing my doctoral thesis on early-modern English brewing at the University of Bristol to put a feather on the cap of my long career.

I wrote...

Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Book Two

By Anistatia R. Miller, Jared McDaniel Brown,

Book cover of Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Book Two

What is my book about?

The second volume of an award-winning two-part history, Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink, Volume 2 revisits and revises much of what is generally known about spirits and mixed drink history, covering the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. A few surprises include the earliest known use of the word “cocktail” in a London newspaper in 1798; the Tom & Jerry was not named after or invented by Jerry Thomas; and the true stories behind the origins of both the Bloody Mary and Bloody Cesar. Spirituous Journey reminds readers that the world of spirits and drinks is more than just a shake, stir, or throw. There's pride in a rich history, too.

Another City

By Dell Upton,

Book cover of Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic

No one writes more compellingly about the multi-sensory experiences of living in America’s past environments than Dell Upton. His book Another City deals with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century city—a century before the time period in my book—but he weaves together narratives of urban experience from America’s first decades as a republic to offer surprisingly contemporary commentary on city politics today. His chapter called “Smell of Danger,” to offer just one example, demonstrates that America’s urban elite mobilized their belief that disease was caused by “miasmas” rising up from foul-smelling waste to justify segregation along with class and racial lines. In the era of yellow fever and cholera, Upton argues that “the physical geography of disease became a human geography of fear.” 

Who am I?

When I was a kid I would cut out graph paper to design my ideal house. When I was in college, I walked into a class called American Material Life and had my eureka moment: “This is how I want to learn about people in the past!” I realized. I’ve been doing that ever since, first as a museum curator and now as a history professor. Houses, furnishings, and the way people interact with the built environment can reveal the complexity, diversity, and beauty of human lives.

I wrote...

Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan's Mining Frontier

By Sarah Fayen Scarlett,

Book cover of Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan's Mining Frontier

What is my book about?

In this book I contrast two types of neighborhoods that transformed Michigan’s mining frontier between 1875 and 1920: paternalistic company towns built for workers and elite suburbs for the region’s network of business leaders. I argue that mining company officers and their partners adapted techniques from both types of neighborhoods—often at the same time in the same places!—to manipulate social hierarchy.

My favorite chapters in the book compare the experiences of homeowners and their families—neighborhood “insiders”—with those of immigrant domestic workers who lived and worked among them as “outsiders.” While Victorian houses used the back doors, butler’s pantries, and maid’s chambers to keep domestic workers “in their places,” they actually provided them with unexpected opportunities to try on new identities.

A History of Future Cities

By Daniel Brook,

Book cover of A History of Future Cities

Cities take a long time to make. Can you make or remake them quickly, like you make instant coffee or assemble fast food? Turns out you can… but you better be a czar or have a similar claim to authority and it may take some time for the product to mature into something worth visiting and living in. David Brook’s A History of Future Cities is one of the most informative and intriguing books on this topic. Beautifully written, the book examines four landmark cases of cities with strong utopian streaks, where powerful political regimes tried to compress time in space and celebrate their glory. The four cases are St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay, and Dubai. Read and dream of visiting. The book will leave you wishing to read about other cities of the same type, among them Washington DC, Brasilia, and Astana.

Who am I?

I love cities and I teach about them. I was born in the capital of Sofia, Bulgaria, and landed in the US (mostly by chance) in 1993. Spent most of my professional life in US academia (Michigan, Virginia Tech, Harvard, Maryland, and now Georgia). I never stopped wondering how cities change and why American cities look and function so differently than European cities. So, I wrote a few books about cities, including Iron Curtains; Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space, which is about changes in East European Cities after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I wrote...

Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

By Sonia A. Hirt,

Book cover of Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

What is my book about?

So, what’s up with American cities? Everyone knows we sprawl more than anyone else in the world and we drive more than anyone else in the world. In my book, I argue that the reason we live this way because we have adopted local laws that mandate this lifestyle. Other developed societies (I reviewed the UK, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, and Australia) don’t have the same laws. We borrowed the laws from the Europeans a hundred years ago but then we changed them beyond recognition. So how about changing the laws?

The Dead Ladies Project

By Jessa Crispin,

Book cover of The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries

The Dead Ladies Project follows Crispin’s inner and outer journey across Europe following her suicide attempt. As a way of trying to make sense of her own fragile condition, Crispin researches the lives of other artists who also fled abroad in order to find themselves. 

I first read The Dead Ladies Project while researching my own hybrid memoir. It was a revelation and an inspiration, this elegant weaving of Crispin’s personal story with the stories of those she imagines traveled a similar path as herself, both geographically and emotionally. 

At this time of overly curated, highly sanitized social media depictions of our lives, Crispin’s unflinching humanity is not just brave, but like water poured on arid soil.

Who am I?

I’m a cultural anthropologist with a passion for exploring how we humans make meaning of the wonderful, terrible, startling, often-absurd existence in which we find ourselves. My research has taken me from NYC’s underground occult scene to the conflict-resolution strategies of Central Peru; from circus performers in Portland, Maine, grappling with their physical potential, to a comedy club in Berlin where I set out to discover the secret sauce for evoking “collective joy” amongst strangers. I am drawn to artistic works that mix genres and defy categorization… and thus have a penchant for alienating editors, librarians, and bookstore owners who struggle to identify on which shelf my books belong. 

I wrote...

The Friendliest Place in the Universe: Love, Laughter, and Stand-Up Comedy in Berlin

By Hillary S. Webb,

Book cover of The Friendliest Place in the Universe: Love, Laughter, and Stand-Up Comedy in Berlin

What is my book about?

In this “anthropological memoir,” Hillary S. Webb turns an anthropologist's eye to the existential search for meaning through the microcosm of a multicultural comedy club in the age of Trump. Told with her signature mix of humor and emotional candor, Webb’s journey offers lessons for all of us grappling with the divisiveness of contemporary life. Come for the free pizza and schnapps—stay for the characters, their stories, and the community.


By Vikki VanSickle, Anna Pirolli (illustrator),

Book cover of Anonymouse

Anonymouse is a charming illustrated picture book for children that grownups will appreciate. It tells the story of a mysterious graffiti artist that creates art specifically for animals. What I love most about it, is that it illustrates the transformative power of art. As the different animals are surprised and delighted with the graffiti, their lives, how they see themselves and relate to each other are enhanced in surprising ways.

Who am I?

I'm sure you’ve heard of method acting. A technique by which an actor embodies the character they're portraying 24/7. I'm a method writer. I embody the world of the novels that I write. However, when the time came to write a novel inspired by graffiti, I faced a particular frustration. Graffiti is illegal. I felt a strong desire to grab a spray paint can to decorate public spaces. And yet the fear of a jail cell prevented me from acting on the impulse. I had to find a different outlet for that desire. I poured over every book and movie on the subject. I believe I became a bit of an expert.

I wrote...

Graffiti Hack

By Elen Ghulam,

Book cover of Graffiti Hack

What is my book about?

Nelly Nasah grew up in a culture obsessed with decoration. So when Nelly arrives in Washington, D.C. she has a mission—to make the Internet beautiful. She lands a job as a graphic designer in Georgetown, and gets to work trying to inspire her colleagues. Despite all her efforts, Nelly’s only friend in this new country is a rickety old elevator, who communicates with her through the language of his gentle sways and flickering lights.

After a failed presentation, Nelly turns to the dark world of hacking. When lavish designs begin to appear on unsuspecting high-profile websites, the Internet starts to pay attention. Nelly’s latest “hits” go viral as the multitudes read political and social messages into her digital decorations. Is Nelly headed for deep trouble?


By Joanne Harris,

Book cover of Chocolat

I love stories about women who stand up for themselves against manipulative authoritarians, especially women who can do so with a sense of humor. Add to that, a bit of magic, and you’ve got me hooked. Chocolat does both in such a satisfying way that it has become one of my all-time favorite reads.

Who am I?

Books have the power to do so much more than to simply entertain. I believe it’s my job as a fiction writer to condense research of complex subjects into understandable language and then play it out in story. My Enter the Between fiction series introduces readers to the world of metaphysics—the bridge between the seen and the unseen, science, and spirituality—which serves as a key to understanding consciousness, death, and the meaning of life. I’ve spent twenty years researching contemporary paganism, holistic theory, quantum mechanics, and transpersonal psychology to come up with stories that bridge science and spirituality with paranormal, supernatural underpinnings, and contemplative messaging that aims toward a kinder, wiser, more peaceful world.

I wrote...

Between Will and Surrender

By Margaret Duarte,

Book cover of Between Will and Surrender

What is my book about?

Marjorie Veil has been conditioned to ignore her own truth, to give away her power, to subjugate in relationships with others, and to settle for the path of least resistance. But she has many surprises in store, for there are synchronistic forces at work in her life that, if she listens, will lead to her authentic heart and happiness. The seemingly impossible happens in the Los Padres National Forest where Marjorie goes on retreat to make sense of her life when she believes she is going insane. The innocence of the Native American orphan Marjorie befriends, as well as more mystery and adventure than she bargained for, show her how love can heal in what turns out to be a transformative spiritual quest.

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