The best books about urban planning

3 authors have picked their favorite books about urban planning and why they recommend each book.

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The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

By Le Corbusier, Frederick Etchells (translator),

Book cover of The City of To-morrow and Its Planning

Read this book if you care about cities. True, you may want to throw it across the room at times (I did),  but it is one of the most influential books of the 20th century and you should know your enemies. Written shortly after World War I when automobiles were beginning to clog streets, its author Le Corbusier had good intentions. He thought narrow crowded streets should be replaced by apartment towers set on green lawns. He used concrete boldly, opened up the interiors of buildings so light could flood in, and insisted that residences be far away from industry and commerce. But while the model can work for luxury housing, it doesn't work when neighborhoods are destroyed to build these high-rise blocks, and separating work from home by automobile-only roads means urban sprawl. 


Who am I?

I like to say I'm a born-again pedestrian. After a childhood in car-friendly Southern California, I moved first to the San Francisco Bay Area and then to Montreal. There I discovered the pleasures of living in walkable cities, and over the years I've explored them in a series of books about people, nature, and urban spaces in which the problems of spread-out, concrete-heavy cities take a front-row seat. The impact of the way we've built our cities over the last 100 years is becoming apparent, as carbon dioxide rises, driving climate changes. We must change the way we live, and the books I suggest give some insights about what to do and what not to do.


I wrote...

Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future

By Mary Soderstrom,

Book cover of Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future

What is my book about?

Imagine a world without concrete: there’d be no skyscrapers, no highways, no subdivisions, no grand irrigation projects, no out-of-season vegetables, no cities as we know them. There would be a shortage of electricity, more mud in some places, more solitude in others. But because of the fossil fuels and other resources required to make concrete, there also would also be less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and less dramatic climate change. In Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future, Mary Soderstrom tells the story of concrete’s surprising past, extravagant present, and uncertain future with careful research, lively anecdotes, and thoughtful reflection.

The Image of the City

By Kevin Lynch,

Book cover of The Image of the City

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.  


Who am I?

Looking at the books I have chosen, one might say they are all rather long in the tooth. They are, yet they are also the books that inspired me to do what I do today which is to teach and research the subject of urban design. I am a Professor of Planning and Urban Design at The Bartlett, UCL and firmly believe that understanding a subject like my own begins from the foundations upwards. Each of these classic texts represents part of those foundations, foundations that my own work attempts to build upon. 


I wrote...

Public Places Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design

By Matthew Carmona,

Book cover of Public Places Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design

What is my book about?

Public Places Urban Spaces is my attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the principles, theory, and practices of urban design. At the heart of the book are eight key dimensions of urban design theory and practice – temporal, perceptual, morphological, visual, social, functional, design governance, and place production, and these are used in the book to structure the huge and ever-expanding body of knowledge on the subject. Underpinning it all is the idea of urban design as a continuous process of shaping places, fashioned in turn by shifting global, local, and power contexts.  

All this sounds incredibly complex, and it is, but Public Places Urban Spaces tries to be your guide through it. I hope you enjoy it!

Ancient Rome

By O.F. Robinson,

Book cover of Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration

From the ridiculous to the sublime, although still very much in the same ballpark. Written by a female classical historian whose husband was involved in local civic administration, this book will tell you everything you want to know (and a lot that you’d rather not, on a full stomach) about how the city of Rome in the late first century was organised, serviced, plumbed, policed, and kept happy. The Roman history anorak’s dream.

Should you want an equally-detailed guide to Who was Who (and related to Whom) in the late Republic and early Empire, then try Ronald Syme’s The Augustan Aristocracy – an impenetrable gem (if gems can be impenetrable), and certainly not a cover-to-cover bedtime read, but nevertheless one of my favourite reference books.


Who am I?

I graduated – too long ago now to recall the date comfortably – from Edinburgh University with an MA in Classics (Latin and Greek); add to this the facts that I’m a compulsive daily solver of the London ‘Times’ cryptic crossword, an unabashed conspiracy-theorist, and a huge fan of Niccolo Machiavelli and Mickey Spillane, and you more or less know all that you need to about the genesis of my Marcus Corvinus series. With these picks I am taking you down some lesser-known but, I hope, interesting side streets in Rome. Here we go...


I wrote...

Ovid

By David Wishart,

Book cover of Ovid

What is my book about?

When young aristocratic layabout Marcus Corvinus is approached by the stepdaughter of the exiled and now dead Roman poet Ovid and asked to clear the return of the ashes for burial, he cheerfully agrees; there should, he thinks, be no problem. Only when he makes the application to the imperial authorities it's turned down flat. So what, Corvinus asks himself, did Ovid do that was so bad that they won't even allow his bones back into Italy? The first book in the Marcus Corvinus series.

From a Cause to a Style

By Nathan Glazer,

Book cover of From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City

If you’ve ever wondered why modern buildings look the way they do—and look so different from say, the buildings of our grandparents’ generation—you cannot do better than read this collection of essays that examines the current state of modern architecture. Glazer, a sociologist who was a noted public intellectual, brings a down-to-earth intelligence and a sharp eye to his subject.


Who am I?

I am professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I’ve written more than twenty books on a variety of subjects, I was trained as an architect and I’ve designed and built houses, researched low cost housing, and taught budding architects for four decades. I was architecture critic for Wigwag and Slate and I’ve written for numerous national magazines and newspapers. Perhaps more important, my wife and I built our own house, mixing concrete, sawing wood, and hammering nails. I wrote a book about that, too.


I wrote...

Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City

By Witold Rybczynski,

Book cover of Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City

What is my book about?

This story is set in the colonial city of Charleston and brings together two of my interests: architecture and urbanism. Beginning in the 1980s, a motley crew of builders—a lover of Byzantine architecture, an Air Force pilot, a fledgling architect, and a bluegrass mandolin player—undertake a variety of unusual projects: a domed Orthodox church, a fanciful medieval castle, a restored freedman’s cottage, a miniature Palladian villa, and a new street based on Porgy and Bess. And in the process of remaking an old city, they invent a new one.

How Paris Became Paris

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

As is the case in many great European cities, most neighborhoods in Paris have accumulated layers and layers of famous inhabitants, momentous events, and deathbed scenes, the most notable of which have earned a historical marker or plaque. At first glance, the city’s buildings and neighborhoods appear timeless, yet much of Paris is actually a palimpsest, a huge manuscript whose neighborhoods have been scraped to the ground and rebuilt time and time again. One of my favorite things in life (quite literally) is walking through the streets of the French capital, and I often find myself thinking of How Paris became Paris while doing so. Joan DeJean is a great writer and provides a narrative of the birth the Paris that we know (or think we know) that is as instructive as it is riveting. The book’s chapters correspond generally to some of the city’s best-known spaces, spaces (such…


Who am I?

Andrew Curran is passionate about books and ideas related to the eighteenth century. His writing on the Enlightenment has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, Time Magazine, The Paris Review, El Païs, and The Wall Street Journal. Curran is also the author of three books and numerous scholarly articles on the French Enlightenment. He is currently writing a new multi-person biography that chronicles the birth of the concept of race for Other Press. Curran teaches at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, where he is a Professor of French and the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities.


I wrote...

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

By Andrew S. Curran,

Book cover of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

What is my book about?

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a spirited biography of the life of France’s most famous Enlightenment-era atheist. For those people who have never heard of him, Diderot was the consummate Enlightenment polymath, the type of thinker who might write on ancient Chinese and Greek music first thing in the morning, study the mechanics of a cotton mill until noon, help purchase some paintings for Catherine the Great in the afternoon, and then return home and compose a play and a fifteen-page letter to his mistress before going to bed. This book chronicles Diderot’s amazing life, including his tormented relationship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his curious correspondence with Voltaire, his passionate affairs, and his often-iconoclastic stands on art, theater, morality, politics, and religion.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs,

Book cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Death and Life, written in the early 1960s – the height of the urban renewal movement  when people were fleeing cities for the shiny new suburbs, caused a sensation among policymakers. Tearing down shabby neighborhoods and replacing them with high rises is all wrong, she argued. In prose so gorgeous it takes your breath away, Jacobs showed us that cities are, in her words, delicate ecosystems. Cities are things of beauty. I’ve reread Death and Life many times, and each time I learn something new. Jane Jacobs taught me why I love New York. 


Who am I?

I’m a second-generation Jewish New Yorker. I love my city passionately, and I know that it loves me back. Some two million Jews left Russia for New York at the turn of the 20th century. They landed at Ellis Island, headed for the Lower East Side, and made the city theirs. My immigrant grandparents were among them. It’s impossible to conceive of New York without Jews. Lenny Bruce once said: In New York, even if you’re Catholic, you’re Jewish.


I wrote...

Devil's Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery

By Alice Sparberg Alexiou,

Book cover of Devil's Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery

What is my book about?

The Bowery was a synonym for despair throughout most of the 20th century. The very name evoked visuals of drunken bums passed out on the sidewalk, and New Yorkers nicknamed it “Satan’s Highway,” “The Mile of Hell,” and “The Street of Forgotten Men.” For years the businesses along the Bowery periodically asked the city to change the street’s name. To have a Bowery address, they claimed, was hurting them.

But when New York exploded into real estate frenzy in the 1990s, developers discovered the Bowery. They rushed in and began tearing down. Today, Whole Foods, hipster night spots, and expensive lofts have replaced the old flophouses and dive bars, and the bad old Bowery no longer exists. In Devil’s Mile, Alice Sparberg Alexiou tells the story of The Bowery, starting with its origins. 

Rebel Cities

By David Harvey,

Book cover of Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

I am inspired by David Harvey’s impassioned Marxist perspective, which makes clear that people not only have a right to the city on its own terms but that this demand must be a political waystation to a much broader anti-capitalist movement. The city functions as a critical site of political revolt (think Paris Commune or the protests against the murder of George Floyd) but Harvey persuasively argues that such protests will be reabsorbed into dominant capitalist practices of displacement, decline, and dispossession unless they are organized on an anti-capitalist platform.


Who am I?

As I watched abandoned buildings, homes, and factories spread throughout neighborhoods in Detroit while photographers came from everywhere to photograph the ruins, I became fascinated with why we are drawn to ruins, what role such imagery plays in our collective imagination, and how ruins today are different than, say, Greek ruins. I am also interested in the politics behind the ruins and the role of capitalism in creating our declining cities. I have written several books on visual culture and politics, engaging with issues of race, trauma, memory, war, and capitalist globalization.


I wrote...

Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

By Dora Apel,

Book cover of Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

What is my book about?

Once the manufacturing powerhouse of the nation, Detroit has become emblematic of failing cities everywhere and the epicenter of an explosive growth in images of urban decay. While others have sung the praises of urban exploration or condemned ruin photography as “ruin porn,” I am interested in why ruin imagery is so popular and seductive. My book considers the ruins of Detroit and other cities as well as the strategies of ruin photographers in managing the fears and anxieties of cultural and economic decline while obscuring its causes (the state and corporations) and the racialized poverty and growing inequality that result. I also explore the expanding network of ruin imagery in advertising, television, video games, and zombie and disaster films.

The Works

By Kate Ascher,

Book cover of The Works: Anatomy of a City

Ascher takes us on a delightful tour of  New York City, teaching us about the inner workings of one of the world’s most complex cities. In doing so, she gives us clues as to how our own cities work. Using words, statistics, history, and illustrations, Ascher makes the complex seem simple, From sewage to stoplights to subways she leaves no stone unturned. Fact to ponder: For years NYC shipped its garbage to a landfill in Texas, nearly 2,000 miles away.


Who am I?

In my 30 years as a writer I’ve learned it’s not enough to simply deliver information; it has to be done in an entertaining, engaging, and inspiring way. I’ve been fascinated in how the world “works” all my life. As a kid I dismantled the family lawn mower (failing to get it re-mantled.) After teaching for two years I turned to general contracting where it was imperative to know how things “worked.”  As an editor with Readers’ Digest and Family Handyman magazine, I wrote the “How A House Works” column and headed up the DIY books division, teaching others how the world works. For the last 15 years I’ve been focused on books that explore the world around us.


I wrote...

A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About)

By Spike Carlsen,

Book cover of A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About)

What is my book about?

We read books about climbing Mount Everest, exploring the depths of the oceans, and traveling to the moon. But what do we know about the world right under our feet; the world we encounter every day? Join the author as he investigates where our trash and recycling go, where our water and electricity come from, how cell phone towers work, and why pigeons and squirrels thrive in urban, suburban, and rural environments. Twenty-six chapters cover 26 fascinating subjects. 

Meet the unforgettable characters the author encounters along the way: Squirrel linguists, graffiti artists in Paris, fellow judges in a roadkill cook-off, the Nordic Walking Queen. It soon becomes clear that this “everyday world” is as full of mystery, history, and intrigue as any story ever told.

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.

The Concise Townscape

By Gordon Cullen,

Book cover of The Concise Townscape

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.


Who am I?

Looking at the books I have chosen, one might say they are all rather long in the tooth. They are, yet they are also the books that inspired me to do what I do today which is to teach and research the subject of urban design. I am a Professor of Planning and Urban Design at The Bartlett, UCL and firmly believe that understanding a subject like my own begins from the foundations upwards. Each of these classic texts represents part of those foundations, foundations that my own work attempts to build upon. 


I wrote...

Public Places Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design

By Matthew Carmona,

Book cover of Public Places Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design

What is my book about?

Public Places Urban Spaces is my attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the principles, theory, and practices of urban design. At the heart of the book are eight key dimensions of urban design theory and practice – temporal, perceptual, morphological, visual, social, functional, design governance, and place production, and these are used in the book to structure the huge and ever-expanding body of knowledge on the subject. Underpinning it all is the idea of urban design as a continuous process of shaping places, fashioned in turn by shifting global, local, and power contexts.  

All this sounds incredibly complex, and it is, but Public Places Urban Spaces tries to be your guide through it. I hope you enjoy it!

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