Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr.
A while back, we rounded up a list of urbanist books for kids. But what about grownups who want a bit more detail and background? We asked our contributors for their recommendations.
Montgomery talks about how the built environment and transportation choices affect on people’s happiness. It’s written in a way that’s accessible, and it really provides good arguments for why these things matter to people.
One book in particular gave Canaan Merchant a better foundation for processing our subject matter.
Suburban Nation, by Jeff Speck, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk was my introduction to a lot of what we cover at Greater Greater Washington. Before I read it, I knew there were things that made neighborhoods work, but I couldn’t articulate them. Suburgan Nation talks about why some designs that encourage walkability are either discouraged or outright banned today, which explains why some in some places make walking easy and pleasant while some only encourage driving.
It’s a fairly comprehensive history of the various factors (real estate, transportation, prevailing social attitudes) that shaped development and downfall during the a seminal period in American urbanism. It’s a history book, not a policy book, but it does help provide a really useful “how we got here’ perspective.
It’s a fun look into the what/why/how of infrastructure operations in an urban environment, specifically using the backdrop of New York City.
Matt Johnson listed four:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This is a staple of planning. Written in 1961, it was one of the first attempts to criticize the planning decisions of the time, but Jacobs also predicted a great many things that wouldn’t become “obvious” to mainstream planners and engineers until the 1990s.
Fighting Traffic, by Peter Norton. This book talks about how the automobile came to dominate our cities. While cars and traffic seems like a foregone conclusion today, it certainly wasn’t in the 1910s and 1920s. When the car first came on the scene, there was a battle to save urban streets.
The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup. A book about parking policy and how there really is no such thing as free parking. Another must-read.
Great Society Subway, by Zachary Schrag. A history of the Washington Metro. It’s a real page-turner. Schrag talks about the history of building a Metro, DC’s fight for enfranchisement, and many other related topics. It’s a fascinating biography of the region, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Jason Henderson’s Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco and Japonica Brown-Saracino’s A Neighborhood that Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity are two books that aren’t as well known as they should be, and both are particularly relevant to current issues in DC. (With A Neighborhood that Never Changes, you may want to skip the rather academic introduction and first chapter.)
It lays out very clearly the difference between walkable urbanism and what he calls “driveable sub-urbanism,” why it’s hard to switch a place from one to the other, why it’s easier for people building cookie-cutter sprawl to get financing than people building urban mixed-use, and much more.
Aimee Custis said,
Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker “is a really terrific primer for non-planners on transit: why it’s important, how it works, how it interacts with land use, why some systems succeed while others fail, and how to build a good transit system. And Walkable City, by Jeff Speck is a great 21st century complement to Jane Jacobs, which Matt recommended. Still read Jane, but if you get a little bogged down or want to understand exactly what’s happening today, Jeff is a fantastic and engaging writer.
Chris Slatt offered a book that’s heavy on visuals:
I’m partial to Victor Dover’s Street Design. The text is a bit dense and heavy, but there is a ton of great knowledge in there about designing streets and the delicious creamy center is hundreds and hundreds of pictures showing actual examples of great streets all across the globe. His book is excellent for countering the inevitable “well that could never work” response that comes when redesigning for Complete Streets and shows just how far we have to go to catch up with the rest of the world.
Tracey Johnstone‘s pick is useful for understanding how urbanism fits into today’s politics:
Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, by William S. Lind and the late Paul Weyrich makes a politically conservative case for investing in mass transit. The reasons the authors have for supporting transit are a lot like those of any transit advocate: that people who don’t ride transit still benefit from it, and that that mass transit contributes to energy conservation and independence, which in turn help with national security.
Melissa Lindsjo added Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation, by Sonja Hirt, and Jeff Lemieux recommended Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.
Finally, Brent Bolin asked a follow-up question:
I am always looking for the go-to primer for elected officials (or community members) that don’t understand urbanist issues. I’ve taken the time to read a lot of these, but when I am interacting with my fellow elected officials, I always wonder what I should be putting in their hands. Let’s say that I’m not looking for Urbanism 101, but rather Urbanism 100 (for non-majors).
Aimee Custis said Walkable City fits the bill, and Abigail Zenner followed up that Happy City “would be great for people who haven’t thought about this stuff before.”
Do you have a question? Each week, we’ll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!