The best books about urban sprawl

Many authors have picked their favorite books about urban sprawl and why they recommend each book.

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By Robert Bruegmann,

Book cover of Sprawl: A Compact History

An architectural historian motivated by simple curiosity concludes that sprawl is not new and is a worldwide phenomenon. Highbrow critics have always condemned suburbanization until the next generation ends up living in it and trying to preserve it against further suburbanization. Bruegmann’s wide-ranging book is a sprightly send-up of the anti-sprawl sentiments throughout history and across the globe. Greenbelts to contain sprawl turn out to be especially toxic to sensible urban development. 

Who am I?

When I studied urban economics at Princeton in the 1970s, theoretical models of urban form were all the rage. Political barriers to urban development such as zoning were dismissed as irrelevant. But as I read more about it, zoning appeared to be the foremost concern of both developers and community members. My service on the Hanover, New Hampshire zoning board made me appreciate why homeowners are so concerned about what happens in their neighborhood. NIMBYs—neighbors who cry “not in my backyard”—are not evil people; they are worried “homevoters” (owners who vote to protect their homes) who cannot diversify their oversized investment. Zoning reforms won’t succeed without addressing their anxieties. 

I wrote...

Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

By William A. Fischel,

Book cover of Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

What is my book about?

Zoning is the division of a city into separate uses such as residential, commercial, and industrial, and the regulation of each building’s size and location. It has been embraced by nearly every urban government for over a century, but Americans still think that it is mean old developers who cause urban sprawl and segregate our cities and suburbs. Zoning Rules! shows that the condition of our cities is very much the product of public land use regulation. My book explains how zoning works, why its politics is dominated by homeowners, and why it has recently pushed up housing costs. The books recommended here demonstrate that local land use regulation has enormous consequences for the environment, inequality, and economic growth. 

The Bulldozer in the Countryside

By Adam Ward Rome,

Book cover of The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism

Adam Rome examines an underappreciated topic in environmental history: the environmental costs of the ever-growing American suburbs. Mass migration to the suburbs coincided with the rise of the environmental movement. That convergence was followed by political controversy, and ultimately codes, regulations, and guidelines. Rome is a great storyteller who reveals important shifts in growth management and environmental policy. 

Who am I?

History is my passion as well as my profession. I love a good story! When I was teaching courses in environmental history and women’s history, I kept noticing the intriguing intersections, which inspired me to write Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers. Most of my work focuses on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920) and includes two award-winning biographies, Fighting Bob La Follette and Belle La Follette Progressive Era Reformer. I’m also the co-editor of A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and have written dozens of op-eds and give public talks (some of which can be found in the C-SPAN online library and on YouTube). 

I wrote...

Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

What is my book about?

This is not a presentation of “Great Women in Environmental History.” It instead focuses on how and why men and women frequently responded differently to the environment and environmental issues throughout American History. I argue that these differences are based not only in physiology, but also in cultural beliefs and practices. For example, even though a campfire seems pretty darn gender-neutral, in the 1920s Boy Scouts were taught that it stood for the camaraderie of the battlefield, factory, and office. Girl Scouts, on the other hand, learned that fire represented hearth and home.

In this illustrated study, a finalist for the California Book Award, I trace women’s environmental attitudes and actions from the pre-Columbian period to the environmental justice movements of the present. 

The Little House

By Virginia Lee Burton,

Book cover of The Little House

I cannot stop loving this book, which graphically depicts a city growing up around a small farm country cottage. While the storyline concerns the fate of the tiny house, the thrill is watching the steady mushrooming growth of vehicles, electric lines, street cars, street lamps, apartment buildings, elevated and subway trains, and finally skyscrapers as they surround the home before it is able to make its satisfying escape back to the country. The art is warm and cozy, befitting a book that has a gutsy cottage as the main character.

Who am I?

I especially love books for children that capture city life in a way that feels both unique and child scaled. I have set most of my books in cities because I love the story possibilities that exist in what are almost entirely human-made environments. Paradoxically, city settings make any kind of connection to the natural world or animals even more important. On this list are all books I feel show a particularly special aspect of city life for children.

I wrote...

Red Again

By Barbara Lehman,

Book cover of Red Again

What is my book about?

When a young boy discovers a forgotten book on a city street, it opens a window to another world just as real as his own. But what happens when the two worlds collide? This imaginative companion to the Caldecott Honor-winning The Red Book works in a continuous loop, showing us that stories never really end.  And that just maybe someone is waiting for a chance to visit us, through the magic of a book.

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.

Fast Food Nation

By Eric Schlosser,

Book cover of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

I think of this 2001 expose as the granddaddy of this genre. The book reveals how “fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society” and the savage consequences of that long reach. Sure, we know fast food helped turn us into people who eat empty calories on the run. But the impact of fast food is much broader and deeper, affecting meatpacking, potato farming, minimum wage labor laws, urban sprawl, and even the tastes our tongues crave. It’s a tribute to the book’s revelations that many of the reviews ended on the same note of “you’ll never look at a burger the same way again.”

Who am I?

I’ve been writing about science and the environment for over 20 years, but always I find myself gravitating to the non-sciency, non-naturey part of stories. My favorite part of my first book, on the American chestnut, was about how people in Appalachia loved and relied on this tree that was largely killed off in the early twentieth century. For Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I was as fascinated by the cultural and psychological effects of plastic as its environmental and health impacts. One of the things I’ve learned is that some of the most powerful things shaping our lives – for better or worse – are ones we don’t notice or see. 

I wrote...

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

By Susan Freinkel,

Book cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

What is my book about?

When I started researching my book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I spent a day writing down everything I touched that was plastic. The list went on for pages. That eye-opening exercise revealed to me how thoroughly plastic permeated modern life. In the space of scarcely 50 years, plastic transformed how we live, work, and play. Plastic surrounds us at every turn; present in the air, the soil, the seas, and even our bodies. The rise of plastic is one of the most profound changes that has taken place in my lifetime – and it was hiding in plain sight. My book was an effort to answer two basic questions: How did this happen? And what does it mean for us and the planet? 

Bookshelves related to urban sprawl