Cities reading list
February 9th, 2019
Many people have reached out asking what books have been most impactful in shaping my views on cities. I've written and rewritten answers enough times that I figured it's most efficient if I just write it up one time here and share the link. 🙂
Order Without Design by Alain Bertaud
Reason to read this: Offers rigorous yet humble models for how urban systems work. This kind of analytical rigor is incredibly rare in urbanism!
This was one of the best books I read in 2018. My main takeaway: urban planning is still like medieval medicine, with doctors trying to leech out bad humours rather than working off of causal models with predictive power.
I've long been an admirer of Alain's work. I used to be frustrated by how imprecise many urbanists are in their analysis. Then a few years ago, I found a few of Alain's papers. They opened my eyes to the rigor that was possible when talking about cities while maintaining humility that they are complex systems that cannot be fully understood let alone controlled/designed by a few bureaucrats.
Coming from a computer science background, it was satisfying to see the intuitions I'd formed from wandering cities on foot formalized in such an elegant, rigorous way. Instead of using fluffy words like "sustainable" or "livable", you actually had predictive models! His work was so refreshing.
Needless to say, I was thrilled when a friend told me that this book was coming out last year. I purchased it immediately and was not disappointed. I consumed it over the course of a week or so, to the dismay of my partner's family with whom I was ostensibly spending the holidays.
Order Without Design was so rich and full of insight that I'm currently going back and transcribing all of the notes I took in the margins. The book formalized several things I already understood on an intuitive level, and more importantly it challenged several core beliefs I've held for a while about ideal transport modes.
The History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
Reason to read this: Gain a sense of romance of the history behind 4 global cities. Ideal if you're about to travel to one of them. (Note: by "romance" I probably mean something very different from what most people mean...)
The book explores four cities—Bombay, St Petersburg, Shanghai, and Dubai—that were created with the idea of being a window to the future in an undeveloped, unglobalized country. Each one catapults itself into a different kind of future, but the common theme is a fascinating lense through which to look. This book helped me fall in love with cities (though I have yet to visit any of the four in the book actually!).
Progress & Poverty by Henry George
Reason to read this: Challenge the standard poles of political economy that you've likely heard for your entire life, a.k.a. capitalism vs socialism or communism. "Georgism" offers a third, entirely different way to see economics, which helped me break out of rigid patterns of thought.
This book transformed the way I think about land use, monopolies, and value creation incentives. Most people who talk about Henry George focus way too much on his Single Tax proposal rather than the underlying models he puts forward. There are many ways to achieve the goals he describes.
I recommend the modernized, abridged version. The original prose is way too flowery, though if you're into sermons you might like it.
If you want an even more concise (but much weirder) take on George's ideas, I recommend Becoming the Trashcan of Ideology written by a friend of mine who I think wants to stay anonymous. Must warn you that it may not make sense unless you're already familiar with Henry George's ideas...
Season of the Witch by David Talbot
Reason to read this: You are coming to San Francisco for the first time and want to get a sense of the city's recent history. This book is full of incredible stories of what happened in those mid decades of the 20th century, so you'll likely enjoy it even if SF is not on your upcoming itinerary.
Season of the Witch is a tapestry of San Francisco through the 60s and 70s. Growing up in the South Bay ~45 minutes away from the city, I had learned about the hippies on Haight Street and the gay-friendly culture of the Castro, but this book opened my eyes to a whole new level of richness in the city's history. I learned gems like the fact that Jim Jones and The People's Temple (of the infamous 1978 Jonestown koolaid massacre) played an instrumental role in George Moscone's mayoral victory in 1975. As a result, Moscone appointed Jones as the chairman of the SF Housing Authority Commission, and Jones gained access to California politicians like Governor Jerry Brown, SF Supervisors Dianne Feinstein and Harvey Milk, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. In exchange for his cult's political support, these figures supported him and The People's Temple up until the day the news came in of the mass suicide at Jonestown. This shocking episode is just one of the incredible stories I learned about San Francisco's history from SOTW, and it completely reshaped the way I think about the city. From Jonestown and the Zebra Murders to Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, I can sum up what I learned in a brief sentence: SF during the span of the 60s and 70s was the real Gotham City.
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
Reason to read this: Understand one man's impressive wielding of power from a position that was not intended to have it. Also learn about how NYC became the city it is today. Next time you're in NYC you won't be able to walk more than a few blocks before catching Moses' name on some plaque or carved into a building.
It is the biography of Robert Moses, who was the NYC Parks Commissioner from the 1920s through the 1960s. Moses is more responsible for reshaping the entire face of New York City than any other individual, and his thinking influenced urban planners nationwide and beyond throughout the 20th century. Over the course of his career, Moses personally conceived and completed projects costing 27 billion dollars, more than any other US government employee ever. These projects ranged from highways and bridges to housing complexes and city parks, many of which required bulldozing entire neighborhoods and in turn displacing hundreds of thousands of NYC residents. Despite the immense impact he's had on the field of urban planning, Moses was never elected to public office.
The book is not only a look into Moses' fascinating life but also a unique perspective on American history and urban planning during that half century. It's also a must-read for anyone interested in how power works, even if they aren't specifically drawn in by the cities angle.
Aside from the intensity of the story itself, the research that went into this masterpiece is just awe-inspring. The author Robert Caro is the best researcher-writer whose work I have ever read. His exhaustive series on LBJ is also fantastic. Although the LBJ books are more well-known and even more ridiculously in-depth than The Power Broker, I enjoyed the story about Moses a bit more because his impact was more concrete and on a more understandable scale. Also, The Power Broker is a story about taking a seemingly insignificant position and wielding it in a way that massively amplifies its power, whereas LBJ's story is more about climbing the ladder until you're at the top. As a side note, the narrator for the Audible recording is fantastic.
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Ed Glaeser
Reason to read this: A core part of the urbanism canon. People refer to this book all the time, even if they don't realize it, so it's worth having this as a base when coming into a conversation. (Jane Jacobs' Death and Life also falls into this category, though it's less propagandistic than Triumph.)
This book is about how "cities magnify humanity’s strengths". It's city propaganda at its finest, and I say that lovingly... I clearly fell hard for it! It's hard to not fall in love with cities after reading this.
Triumph is what started me down the path of thinking about agglomeration economies, which has since been a key model for how I think about cities.
Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States by K. T. Jackson
Reason to read this: To learn how and why the form of development has changed over the course of US history.
Crabgrass is a history of suburbanization and the history of federal policy since World War II. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about how US development happened, answering many questions about the path dependence that got us to some of the weird, contradictory positions we find ourselves in today as far as urban policy goes.
"A sweeping history of suburban sprawl that showed how interstate highway construction, mortgage subsidies, and tax breaks conspired to de-urbanize the country, making the United States unlike anywhere else in the world." — Daniela Blei in A Tale of Two Cities
Reason to read this: To examine a specific characteristic of cities and gain concrete ideas for how to improve them on that dimension.
The core argument is that a walkable city is not just a nice, idealistic notion. Rather, it is a simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems that we face as a society, problems that daily undermine our nation’s economic competitiveness, public welfare, and environmental sustainability.
More thorough notes here: devo.nz/post/book-notes-walkable-city
- Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas that Shape the World (a sort of Images of Organization for cities)
- The Economy of Cities (I haven't actually read this one yet but it's the #1 book on cities I'm most excited to read, and it's been widely recommended to me so I figured I should add it)