A recent TED talk by Geoffrey West asserted that cities were “the furnace of civilization,” and he was right. Being able to comprehend cities is essential if we are to comprehend our civilization’s creative and intellectual output in this age of globalization. These seven wonderful books, covering a wide range of topics related to urbanity’s prized living creature from design to sociology to economy and beyond, are here to assist you in your quest.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs is without a doubt the most influential urban planner of all time. Her monumental 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, has had such an impact on urbanism in the last half-century that mentioning it in an introductory context is almost embarrassing. It is an intelligent critique of then-new planning policies and their negative impact on inner-city communities, rather than a careless attack, that offers new principles for planning and rebuilding smart, functional cities, debunking the widely held belief that if only we had enough money, the urban decay would be reversed, the wandering tax money of the middle class would be anchored and even traffic problems would be solved — a critique that is intelligent and constructive.
However, look at what we’ve accomplished with the first few billions: Delinquent, vandalized, and socially hopeless low-income housing projects that are worse than the slums they were meant to replace. Housing developments for the middle class that are a wonder of monotony and rigidity, impervious to the energy and vigor of metropolitan life. Vapid vulgarity is used to mask the absurdity of luxury housing projects. Cultural centers that don’t have enough room for a bookstore. Bums have fewer options than others when it comes to where they can spend their time in the city’s civic centers. Commercial centers that are poor imitations of the standardized suburban chain-store shopping that they are meant to replace Promenades with no promenaders that lead from one point to the next. Cities are being decimated by interstate highways. City-building is not what we’re talking about here. A city has been sacked.
Along with its core content, Jacobs included an interesting aside regarding illustration, hinting to the medium’s role as a sensemaking tool for the world. This book’s illustrations are entirely devoted to depictions of us, the readers. Please pay attention to real-world cities for inspiration. Look, listen, and ponder your surroundings while you’re at it.
Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser
There are more than 36 million people in greater Tokyo; nearly 70 percent of Americans live in just 3 percent of the country’s total land area; and yet we live with constant civic guilt, perpetuated by the media about city life’s wasteful, unhealthy and crime-ridden practices. Despite this, we continue to live in cities. Edward Glaeser debunks a number of popular urban economic myths to show how and why cities can in fact be a model for optimal human and environmental well-being in his book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, a book written by a pioneering urban economist. New York City has the lowest rates of cancer and heart disease of any major U.S. metro area, as well as the lowest energy use of any major U.S. metro area.
Because of human collaboration, civilisation has thrived and cities have been established. We must hold on to these facts and dispel detrimental myths if we are to fully comprehend our cities and the challenges they provide. We need to let go of the idea that being an urbanite implies fighting for the preservation of a city’s physical history and that being an environmentalist involves surrounding yourself with trees. We need to stop romanticizing rural villages and suburban tract homes, and we need to stop glorifying home ownership. Better long-distance communication will not eliminate our yearning for physical proximity, as some have suggested.
The City in History by Lewis Mumford
Originally published in 1952, Lewis Mumford’s monumental work The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects charts the history of human settlement, from the earliest tribal settlements through medieval towns to the retro-modern business districts of the 1950s. It was Mumford’s observations, which he shared half a century ago, that foreshadowed some of the most critical issues facing urbanists, scholars, and civic leaders today.
It is possible to alleviate some of the city’s transportation woes by creating sub-centers based on foot traffic inside the metropolitan area. There must be a reduction in superfluous journeys and their unnecessary duration in order to make the necessary journeys around the metropolis quick and efficient. This can only be accomplished through a more integrated work-life balance.
Although he is quick to point out how we can (and do) ruin our cities, there is an undertone of exuberant optimism in our capacity for wisdom, development, and moral creativity beneath his astute observations:
However, there is one thing that is certain about life: it is always full of surprises. It’s possible that the causes and projects that can save our current aimless energy will win out in the end–that our generation may in fact be on the verge of the final moments. Achieving this goal will allow us to free up resources that are currently being used to build dehumanizing weapons systems like nuclear bombs and space rockets, and instead use them to reclaim our planet’s natural resources and rebuild our cities, including the humus that sustains life on Earth and the humus that feeds it. Human vitality will soar to unprecedented levels if sterile and sadistic ruling-class fantasies are extinguished, making the Renaissance seem like a near-stillbirth.
Aerotropolis by John Kasarda
In many cultures, cities have been defined by transportation hubs, such as ports and railway stations, where people assemble and exchange money, products and ideas. Academic researcher and urban consultant John Kasarda and journalist Greg Lindsay analyze today’s most major transportation hub, airports, as an epicenter of tomorrow’s civilization in the form of the “aerotropolis”—a combination of gigantic airports, planned metropolises, and commerce clusters. At the crossroads of urbanism, civic engineering, sociology and international relations as well as economics and mapping lies the aerotropolis. It is both radical and practical.
If you’d like to see how and why the physical Internet works in the context of an aerotropolis, look no farther than the aerotropolis itself and its immediate surroundings. Instead of location, location, location, the three golden rules of real estate are now accessibility, accessibility, and accessibility. A new metric has emerged. It’s no longer only a matter of space; now it’s also a matter of time and money. What appears to be a sprawling aerotropolis in reality is actually an effort to reduce both. The effects of globalization on our cities, lifestyle, and culture may be seen firsthand in places like these.
Who’s Your City by Richard Florida
One of the most brilliant people writing and thinking about cities today is Richard Florida, a fellow contributor to The Atlantic and one of the most stimulating people to follow on Twitter. His book Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life examines the macro aspects of cities, from economy to transportation, through the micro lens of personal happiness. (It is, in fact, an excellent addition to this reading list of books on happiness.) According to Florida, our cities and personalities are intertwined, and our sense of self and well-being are all intertwined. This is revealed through a combination of rigorous statistics, theoretical arguments, and interesting maps.
It’s not a new phenomenon that an area has been dubbed “dead.” First, the railroad ushered in a new era of commerce and transportation. Then came the telephone, which brought everyone closer together. A globalized world began with the invention of automobiles, followed by airplanes, and finally, the World Wide Web. The promise of an infinite universe has accompanied each of these innovations. If they were in place, we would have the freedom to leave the crowded cities and lead bucolic lifestyles of our own choosing. The days when towns and civilizations were restricted to areas with fertile soil, natural harbors, or abundant raw materials are long behind us. We can live wherever we wish in today’s technologically advanced society. According to this increasingly common perspective, location is a non-issue.
It’s a good idea, but it’s incorrect. Talent, innovation, and creativity are not equitably dispersed in the global economy today. They are concentrated in a few areas. What this book ultimately gives is a thoughtful plan for finding or learning to appreciate the city and community that are best adapted to your life, your duties, and your objectives while also balancing the trade-offs of place and personality.