Just likes cities, books are amazing things that can provoke love and appreciation as easily as hate and hostility. Both books and cities have been set aflame by their opponents. But they are still going strong, being a manifestation of very old ideas that keep getting updated as technology flows… alright, enough with the analogies.
Here, I present a list of five books that I love, all dealing with cities—their history, their inner workings, their people, and their future. While there is no shortage in brilliant and dense academic volumes written by and for city experts, this list is all about delightful reading: inspiring, fascinating and plain fun. I trust these books will be appealing for anyone intrigued by cities; a few could even provide some light reading pleasure, enjoyed in short bursts. These books also have caused some kind of lasting effect on me. They say a good book stays with you long after reading it. Well, I can vouch for the ones I’m about to recommend!
What it is about: I’ll open with a veritable doorstopper: The City in History, written in 1961 by urban sage Lewis Mumford, is physically thick and heavy. But its prose is airy, flowing and engaging. This book planted in my mind the idea that to change the world and make it better, the place where we need to act is in our cities. It takes the reader for an exhilarating trip through human (urban) history. Prehistoric settlements, the Greek polis, the medieval burg, the hellscape of the Industrial Revolution factory-town, and finally the post-WWII, rapidly transforming contemporary cities to the author. It’s like reading through a detailed account of the best Civilization game ever, only better because it’s our history. Mumford believes that cities thrive when they function as the stage where human drama unfolds, where we play our vital roles, where we create and connect with each other. He calls for embracing technology, but always making sure it exists to fulfill human needs, and not vice-versa. It’s hard to believe the book was written more than 50 years ago. Mumford identified the prioritization of the car over every other form of transport as an urban planning mishap, at a time when that custom was on the rise. He also denounces urban sprawl and suburbanization with sharp wit. The guy was endlessly quotable! The only thing I would say has become clearly dated is his wariness of thermonuclear destruction as the highest threat for a city’s future. Let’s all hope that this particular concern of his time remains out of fashion.
Effect on yours truly: Spurring vocational crisis, making me quit my job and go back to grad school to switch careers and become an urban planner. I’ve had some very good times since then, so no hard feelings.
What it is about: A surprisingly engaging deep look at why cities are organized the way they are, and how this results in very distinctive urban layouts and patterns across geographies and eras. The City Shaped is profusely illustrated, with the nicest diagrams, aerial photographs, and (a personal favorite) century-old city maps made by artists and surveyors. After finishing this one, you’ll gain the interesting ability of “reading” cities based on their street pattern. How is the street grid of a city that flourished in an Islamic culture different from a Christian one? How do you immediately recognize a city of colonial origins? Can you tell if a modern metropolis used to have a protective wall enclosement, and where? Or spot surviving traces of Baroque planning? You will. You will.
Effect on yours truly: Made me hunt for a quaint plan of my city during its colonial infancy (this one), which I framed and hung on my wall. Then, I tortured visiting friends with boastful theories about my apartment actually being located within the original boundaries of the city.
What it is about: Answering all the questions we had as kids about the city, and then some more: Where does the garbage go when they pick it up? What’s down the manhole? Where do the subway cars come from?
I must say, this is a beautiful book. Visual storytelling takes the reins here. Everything is explained with intricate, masterfully designed infographics. It’s like Röyksopp’s 2002 music video Remind Me turned into a book about New York City. Yup, the Big Apple is used as a real world example for every topic covered, from bridge construction to mail delivery. But no worries because you will learn a lot about your own city by analogy. As Lewis Mumford said (I told you he was quotable, remember?) “New York is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city.”
If you are not already an infrastructure nerd, this book will turn you into one (believe me, there is such a thing). Then you will also salivate just by looking at the chapter list:
Ch. 1: Moving People (subways, streets, tunnels, and bridges)
Ch. 2: Moving Freight (rail freight, the port and harbor, air cargo, wholesale markets)
Ch. 3: Keeping it Clean (water, garbage, sewers/wastewater)
Ch. 4: Power (electricity, gas, steam)
Ch. 5: Communications (moving the mail, telephone, television & cable)
I want to read it again, already!
Effect on yours truly: Re-igniting childhood amazement at the enormous effort (and achievement) that city services entail. Acquiring a particular fascination with waste management. Sending me head first into more heady meditations about the politics of infrastructure.
What it is about: An expertly curated collection of art painted, sculpted, or otherwise installed in urban public spaces. Most of the pieces are surreptitiously deployed. Some reflect on severe urban issues like homelessness and violence; others are whimsical, or snarky. But even the most playful examples, in contrast with their oftentimes stark surroundings, make a statement about the human spirit. Some are diminutive, like Slinkachu’s “Little People” installations. On the other end of the scale spectrum lie Felice Varini’s painted over optical illusions spanning entire halls, buildings and streets. Many of these artists’ styles and materials have long since been appropriated by the advertising world, which highlights a poignant tension subjacent to every personal project in public spaces: how can we keep (at least some) practices, environments and relationships purely personal, or communal, and free from commoditization?
It’s not a coincidence then that the fourth thematic chapter, “Public Privacy,” offers some of the most provoking examples. I particularly like Michael Rakowitz’s subversion of the parking lot. The artist designed a car-shaped tent that can be plopped in any parking slot, thus affording its occupant a transient haven in an environment otherwise hostile to human leisure. Suggested uses: “temporary gardens, outdoor dining, game playing.”
You can check a few more of the projects at make-money-not-art.com.
Effect on yours truly: Pushing my previous interest in urban photography beyond flaneurism and “snapshot collection” into more engaged and organized experimentation. The results: http://cargocollective.com/metrosis/
What it is about: A collection of very well narrated case studies of societies facing total collapse, from the Mayan empire to Viking settlements in North America. Author Jared Diamond, of “Guns, Germs & Steel” fame, is known by his ability to write scientific page-turners, and he doesn’t disappoint with this volume. The portrait of these doomed societies is vivid and well informed. His analysis of the most common causes of societal collapse is nuanced and gripping. While Diamond makes a clear effort to maintain objectivity and leaves for the reader the task of extracting conclusions during the first chapters, the goal is not merely descriptive. By the last chapter, Diamond makes clear that we can look at the past for clues about our present, and to inform our plans to deal with the global threats we face today.
Complete environmental breakdown caused by resource depletion has happened before in isolated places. Cultures as diverse as Polynesian Easter Island and Middle Ages Iceland faced total extinction caused by the over-extraction of nonrenewable natural resources that sustained their existence. The former disappeared; the later changed course and still prospers today. What made the difference? According to Diamond’s riveting account, the resolve to take drastic measures and change firmly ingrained ways of living.
Today, many of us still deny that we are on course to damaging our environment beyond repair. Reading about similar denial in previous societies that were fast approaching disaster is worrisome. But contemporary society is not doomed to keep making the same mistakes. As individuals, we are not powerless either, and we need to try to make a difference. The book’s subtitle, “How societies choose to fail or succeed,” makes clear that human agency is what got us here, and it also is what can steer us out of trouble.
Effect on yours truly: Adding Icelandic history and culture as yet another minor obsession. Writing a lot about it during planning courses in grad school, and eventually getting plane tickets to visit Iceland and see it for myself (I’ll finally go there in just a couple of weeks. I’m THRILLED).
So there you have it. Five books I wholeheartedly recommend for urbanism enthusiasts (and curious people in general!).
If you have any suggestions or additions to this list, hit me up on Twitter.