The best books about urbanization

2 authors have picked their favorite books about urbanization and why they recommend each book.

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Critique of Urbanization

By Neil Brenner,

Book cover of Critique of Urbanization: Selected Essays

Brenner blew my mind by explaining that the idea of the city as a circumscribed and autonomous space is an obsolete nineteenth-century concept. He made me realize that the boundaries between city, suburb, and rural space are superseded by capitalist urbanization and industrialization across the planet—under the oceans, across the land, and even in the atmosphere—and that it is utterly degrading the environment for purposes of commodification.

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.

Building Mid-Republican Rome

By Seth Bernard,

Book cover of Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

The monuments we see when we visit Rome were constructed under the emperors. But Rome was already a great metropolis before they began work, one that was architecturally unique and built on a scale to dwarf most ancient cities. What this book does is reconstruct the great building projects of the Republic, beginning with the original fourth-century walls of Rome and the first aqueducts. It asks (and answers) questions like: Where did they get the stone? Who provided the labour? How long did it take them? And what technologies did they use? This was a Rome built without marble, without concrete, and not a royal foundation, but one managed by generations of magistrates riding the wave of a slow economic boom. Completely fascinating.

Who am I?

I am an historian and archaeologist of the Roman world, who has lectured on the subject around the world. This summer I am moving from a position in London to one in Los Angeles. One of the attractions of Roman history is that it is a vast subject spanning three continents and more than a thousand years. There is always something new to discover and a great international community of researchers working together to do just that. It is a huge privilege to be part of that community and to try and communicate some its work to the widest audience possible.

I wrote...

Rome: An Empire's Story

By Greg Woolf,

Book cover of Rome: An Empire's Story

What is my book about?

A decade ago I wrote the first edition of this history of Rome from its foundation to the Arab Conquests that nearly overwhelmed the empire a millennium and a half later. I was travelling a lot in those days, and I wrote whenever and wherever I had a moment. Part of it was drafted in Brazil at the busy university of UNICAMP, and I finished it in beautiful Erfurt in the green heart of Germany. 

This edition was written entirely in lockdown, sitting at my desk in Scotland surrounded by the latest books on Roman history. It has been exciting to see how fast the subject is changing, and I have tried to reflect that in the new text. There is more on the beginning and much more on the end of the story, Roman material culture plays a bigger part, and again and again, new research has made me rethink my views. I hope my readers learn as much from it as I learned rewriting it!

The Invention of Paris

By Eric Hazan, David Fernbach (translator),

Book cover of The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

Hazan knows every nook and cranny of his city. He exults in the buildings and architecture, but his main subject is the people who wove the fabric of its diverse communities and their histories. He takes us on a historical journey that passes from the salons of the old aristocracy to the artisanal districts where popular, revolutionary activism was born. Hazan makes no attempt to conceal his left-wing sympathies, but he is equally at home admiring the Art Nouveau gems of the well-heeled 16th arrondissement as he is enjoying the vibrant, ethnically diverse northern districts of the city. Hazan’s love of the human life of Paris shines through.

Who am I?

I’m a historian specialising in the French Revolution at the University of Glasgow. During my doctorate, my now wife and I stayed in Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement. There grew a knowledge and love of Paris that have never diminished. As part of my research, I explore the places and spaces where events unfolded, trying to understand how these sites have since changed and been overwritten with new meanings and historical memories: I have the worn-out boots to show for it. I’m currently writing a book on Paris in the Belle Époque, from the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 to the outbreak of the First World War.

I wrote...

Rebel Cities

By Mike Rapport,

Book cover of Rebel Cities

What is my book about?

This book explores three cities – Paris, London, and New York - in the age of the American and French Revolutions. Beginning with the Stamp Act Riots in New York in 1765 and the popular protests in support of John Wilkes in London, the narrative encompasses the experience of revolution and the British military occupation of New York, the Gordon Riots and radical movement in London, and the start of the great upheaval of the French Revolution in Paris. 

It finishes by describing the Terror in Paris and the reactions in London and in New York. Central to the story is the part played by the streets, buildings, and meeting places that became the sites for these great struggles for democracy and freedom.

Triumph of the City

By Edward Glaeser,

Book cover of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

Glaeser’s book is a fascinating, and celebratory work on how cities came to be - and improved humanity on the way. The creativity and technological improvements driven by cities are everywhere, and Glaeser makes readers think anew on how they’ve benefited from urban spaces - even if they don’t live in one.

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.

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