Best Books for Seeing Cities Differently

I’m often asked to recommend the best book on cities. As with any worthy subject, one book is not sufficient (unless you’re reading up on 80s hair bands…one book is sufficient). Here I want to recommend a few books, or categories of books, that have helped me understand cities and therefore see cities differently. This list is nowhere near comprehensive, but if you read these books, it will—at least, it should—change the way you see cities in general and your city specifically.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs set the mold for the feisty intellectual. Originally from Pennsylvania, Jacobs came to New York City and new it was where she belonged. She wrote for an architecture magazine for many years without any training. Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961, took on the urban planning movement of the time and systematically dismantled the movement. She combined careful observation with keen intellect to awaken readers to the simple beauty of basic urban components: sidewalks, short blocks, parks, and mixed development. Although she is addressing urban planners in 1960s America, her analysis of what makes cities work remains one of the most referenced among urban planners and academics today. You will never see sidewalks the same again.

The City in History

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by Lewis Mumford. What gave rise to the first cities? How did cities develop in different eras? Lewis Mumford offers a tour de force history of cities from the moment humans began to live in settlements until just after World War II. Mumford does a masterful job of bringing a deluge of information together in a coherent presentation of urban development over a period of thousands of years. The book is not without its faults. Mumford assumes evolutionary development of human civilization which leads to other assumptions about human purpose. And he is more versed in European urban development than other parts of the world. Nevertheless, readers will better understand their own cities upon reading this tome.

The Image of the City

The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. Another book written in the 1960s, Kevin Lynch explores the ways people actually see and use their own cities. This MIT Architecture professor asked city dwellers in few key cities to draw their respective cities from their memory. The results from his research reveal the ways people move through and remember their cities. He notes common features that appear again and again: districts, edges, paths, nodes, and landmarks. Similar to Jane Jacobs, Lynch highlights the ways people actually use the city rather than the way someone intended for the city to be used. These five common features of cities can help readers gain understanding of a city.

The Urban World

Any good textbook on cities. Two that I would recommend are Cities and Urban Life by John Macionis and Vincent Parrillo or The Urban World by John Palen. Both of these books attempt to cover all of the key aspects of urban life drawing from multiple disciplines, especially urban sociology. Whether we know it or not, we operate with many assumptions about city life that are not grounded in verifiable research. Whether the issues are urban sprawl, crime rates, social interaction, or trends in urban planning and its impact on city dwellers, these books can dispel false assumptions and offer some fundamental terms and concepts in urban studies. Since the first three books I’ve mentioned here are all dated, this choice also offers more current statistics and trends. This book can provide categories for someone who is seeking to understand a particular city.

Shadow Cities

Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth offers well-rounded insight into “informal settlements” (sometimes given different names: slums, favelas, bustees, etc.). Neuwirth is a journalist who went and lived for a short time in informal settlements in four different cities around the world: Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, and Istanbul. There are a number of books highlighting systemic injustices among the urban poor that call for action. This is not that kind of book. The author attempts to portray the realities of life in an informal settlement in these four cities. The combination of social conditions, urban governance, and cultural norms have created unique circumstances in each city among the urban poor around the world. This book helps the us understand communities of urban poor and their profound role in shaping cities.

There are many more brilliant contributions to understanding cities. These books will serve you well in gaining a well-rounded ability to see cities beyond the bright lights and skyscrapers.