Top 10 Books - 2004

The following list of top 10 books published in 2003 was compiled by the Planetizen editorial staff based on a number of criteria, including editorial reviews, sales rankings, popularity, Planetizen reader nominations, number of references, recommendations from experts and the book's potential impact on the urban planning, development and design professions.

Below are summaries for each selected title, in alphabetical order. Books published after December 2003 were not considered for this list.

America's Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy
by Howard Husock (Ivan R. Dee, Inc., November 2003)

Housing policy in the U.S. is an issue within the urban planning, development and design professions (and beyond) that is as tough, as it is sensitive, as it is variegated, as it is unresolved. And arguably many of us, united in acknowledging some of its past mistakes, are divided by its future course. America's Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake is a collection of essays written from 1995-2003 on everything that Howard Husock, director of public policy case studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, thinks is wrong with U.S. housing policy. It is an unforgiving look at the history of 'failed' housing programs in the U.S., with such provocative chapter titles as "Don't Let CDC's Fool You" and "We Don't Need Subsidized Housing." Husock dedicates nearly all of his book to trying to discredit policies such as the Community Reinvestment Act, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, Section 8, public housing in its many forms, and subsidized non-profit housing development. He also offers some solutions, including a "compassionate conservative housing policy," which would gradually dismantle public housing and subsidy programs. He also highlights what he thinks are successful models, such as time-limited public housing in Charlotte, NC, and Habitat for Humanity.

The experience of reading Howard Husock's essays is interactive. Along the way, you may find yourself yelling out counter-arguments, or giving Husock a mental high-five. And depending on which chapter it is and what your position is on solving the seemingly insurmountable housing problems in this country, you may even find that you do both. Whether you agree with Howard Husock or not, America's Trillion Dollar Housing Mistake keeps you on your toes and holds you accountable for your opinions, whatever they may be, on housing policy in the U.S.

Buy this book


The Birth of City Planning in the United States: 1840-1917
by Jon A. Peterson (The Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2003)

The title of this book is so modest and generic that one could easily gloss over the specificity of the title, as well as the large impact it has already had on historical planning research. In fact, don't let the title fool you into thinking that it is just another book on the history of city planning, which you are more or less familiar with already from your Introduction to Urban Planning class. Jon Peterson, Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY, writes quite lucidly on the creation of specifically American city planning practice, as well as its formative years. Peterson pinpoints the birth of American city planning to the Progressive Era, 1900-1910, which he describes as "one of the most creative moments in the history of American urbanism and reform." It was a time in which there was "a response to the rise of great urban centers," before the automobile dominated the urban landscape, and when commercial and retail activities were concentrated at the core, with residential uses on the periphery.

There are two compelling arguments for why the Progressive Era signals the birth of city planning. For one, Peterson argues that it was the first time that comprehensive city planning--as it was understood during the Progressive Era, and defined by pioneers such as Frederick Law Olmsted and John Nolen--came to mean looking at the city as a whole. Peterson also argues that it was one of the first moments in which we planned for the existing city. His compelling argument on the birth of city planning during the Progressive Era also alludes to the fragmentation of it. Many would agree that urban planning practice is more difficult to define today than it was at turn of the century. However, Peterson is quick to also point out that "the legacy of that birth, however fragmented, lies all about us."

The Birth of City Planning in the United States has been cited by many urban planning experts as one of the best books on the history city planning in the United States, to date. As a well-thought out account of the planning profession's origins in physical and comprehensive planning, it lives up to its reputation.

Buy this book


Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000
by Dolores Hayden (Pantheon, September 2003)

Dolores Hayden, author of The Grand Domestic Revolution, Redesigning the American Dream, and The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, brings to her newest book a wealth of knowledge about the history and social impacts of suburbanization in the United States. This work synthesizes much of her earlier research into a succinct, easily accessible work intended for the general public as "a brief illustrated history of suburban development." Indeed, supplemented by historic photographs, advertisements, and neighborhood plans, Building Suburbia on one level features an original historical catalogue of suburban types, from "elite picturesque enclaves" in the mid-19th century to "sitcom suburbs" in the 1950s, to the more recent strip malls and office parks.

Yet it goes deeper, identifying the conflict inherent to the American metropolitan landscape between people who want home, nature, and community, and developers who want to make a profit giving it to them. In addition, Hayden includes a comprehensive social history of suburbs, addressing issues from class and racial segregation, to gender, to the tangible impact of federal policies on the American landscape and its people. After reviewing major literature in the field, Hayden updates Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier with evidence that suburbia is here to stay, including new movements towards nostalgia (New Urbanism), the future (the digital house), and the environment (sustainable development). Building Suburbia concludes with hope for the future, as Hayden, through case studies, details the importance of older suburbs, and how the preservation of historic layers of suburban fabric can lead to greater economic development, a better sense of public history, and the rebirth of a more concentrated urban form.

Buy this book


City: Urbanism and Its End
by Douglas Rae (Yale University Press, September 2003)

Douglas Rae knows New Haven, Connecticut. Now, you might even say he wrote the book on it. In City: Urbanism and Its End, Rae, longtime professor at the city's Yale School of Management and former Chief Administrative Officer for the city, displays a superior knowledge of New Haven, amassed over years of historical research and empirical analysis of the city's trends. At its height, New Haven epitomized urbanism, or a pattern of "private conduct and decision-making" that allowed the city to flourish despite a relatively weak city government. In City, Rae traces this urbanism's path over the past two centuries, "across the boundaries that separate political science from sociology, geography, economics and history itself."

The book weaves together personal accounts from New Haveners (including a glimpse into a private party in 1910), primary research into city records, timelines of city development, and historic photographs with countless original maps, charts, and tables documenting every facet of the city, from data on grocery stores, to public housing, to the homes of government officials. The result is a rich history of a complex city that has weathered massive change--from industrial growth in the late 19th and early 20th century, to a golden age of civic vitality between the World Wars, to the "end of urbanism" after World War II (caused by suburbanization, ethnic migration, urban renewal and many more factors), to a possible rebirth of New Haven, spurred in part by Yale's efforts. In the end, Rae shows how non-governmental aspects of the city--such as small-scale retailing, neighborhood clubs, and the informal enforcement of sidewalk civility--can make a huge impact on the health of its urbanism.

Buy this book


Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston
by Nancy S. Seasholes (MIT Press, November 2003)

In Gaining Ground, Nancy S. Seasholes presents a comprehensive history of the causes and effects of landmaking in Boston, from the city's birth to the present day. Boston has more made land--created by filling in the tidal flats and marshes that once surrounded the city--than probably any other city in North America. Roughly 5,250 acres have been created, accounting for about one sixth of the city. The creation of new land in the port city was inextricably linked to the history of the city itself, as Seasholes connects major trends in Boston to bursts of landmaking efforts. Shipping trade with China in the late 18th century and competition with New York's port in the mid-19th century prompted the expansion of Boston's wharves into the harbor. With the railroads at the start of the 19th century came a need for more depot space, and so, more land. Public health concerns have prompted a new wave of landmaking, whether to cover up wastewater disposal and sewage or to create new parks to compensate for such pollution.

The hefty, more-than-coffee-table-sized book is full of detailed maps showing step by step the development of Boston's landmaking projects. Seasholes' thorough research has yielded many fascinating historic photographs and drawings. After a discussion of the technology of landmaking, Seasholes puts everything together in 11 chapters on the development of each Boston neighborhood impacted by landmaking, revealing a complete portrait of the practice on a city scale. In her afterword, Seasholes dedicates a few pages to an analysis of Boston's landmaking, but makes no sweeping statements; this book is intended to be a history, and little more, and the author hopes that her efforts will spawn further research in this fascinating field.

Buy this book


Global City Blues
by Daniel Solomon (Island Press, May 2003)

Global City Blues is a collection of thirty-three essays, or rather, vignettes by famed architect and co-founder of the New Urbanism movement, Daniel Solomon. Solomon's essays interweave personal anecdotes with frequent lamentations on the influence and legacy of modernist ideas on city form. The book can best be described as having a variety of essays, from anecdotal to academic to random--all of which try to make a larger point about what the publisher describes as Daniel Solomon's beliefs "about the world we inhabit and the kind of world we should strive to create." In "Colin Rowe" Solomon describes the unforgettable and uncomfortable experience of meeting his hero, Colin Rowe. In "Peaches," an imaginative essay on food and urbanism, he compares Carol Wyman, a food columnist with a conspicuous love for Spam, Cheese Whiz, and Miracle Whip, to Rem Koolhaas.

There is a definite sense of ownership that prevails throughout Solomon's book: A sense of ownership (co-ownership) for New Urbanism, a sense of ownership for the place he has earned in history as an influential person, and an awareness of his right to write about whatever he wants in his book. Most architects and perhaps some planners can relate to Daniel Solomon's many descriptions throughout the book as a student, a professor, architect and ponderer of life. Even for those who would find his attack on Modernism unpalatable, the essays in Global City Blues can still be informative and enjoyable to read.

Buy this book


Halfway to Everywhere: A Portrait of America's First-Tier Suburbs
by William Hudnut III (ULI, May 2003)

In Halfway to Everywhere: A Portrait of America's First-Tier Suburbs, William Hudnut ventures out into the field to trace the evolution of first-tier suburbs in the United States. Along the way, he makes some friends, documents some interesting case studies and changes his view of aging suburbs. Hudnut, who is a senior research fellow at ULI and the former mayor of Indianapolis, concludes that despite the state of decline of many aging suburbs, some are on the road to recovery. He writes: "If this book had been written 12 years ago instead of today, the picture might be gloomier than it actually is In my opinion, a cautiously optimistic assessment of the future of many older first-tier suburbs is justified." The book's title, in fact, has a dual meaning. "Halfway" not only refers to the physical location of first-tier suburbs (between central cities and second and third-tier suburbs), but also to the state of aging suburbs being halfway between decline and recovery. He writes of many first-tier suburbs being "perched on the brink of change."

Despite his cautious optimism, Hudnut also makes compelling points about why we need to plan regionally and give our attention to first-tier suburbs. He discusses how funds are allocated for inner-city revitalization, or sprawl-inducing policies that help second and third tier suburbs, and that somewhere along the way the first-tier suburbs are forgotten. Halfway is also not without its practical advice and analyses on policy and regional planning. However, the book's focus--and ultimately its strength--is more about challenges and opportunities, rather than challenges and solutions.

Buy this book


House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods
by Alexander Von Hoffman (Oxford University Press, March 2003)

As Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon has taught us, there are many ways of looking at the same event. It takes a skilled storyteller, like Alexander Von Hoffman, a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, to synthesize different sides of the same story into one complete story of inner-city revitalization in the U.S. For House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods, the publisher writes: "Von Hoffman illustrates the creative and enterprising work by local government and businesses as well as community activists and concerned citizens to develop and resuscitate deteriorating neighborhoods."

Each chapter tells the story of urban renewal in a major U.S. city: New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Von Hoffman carefully crafts his chapters to characterize the experience of U.S. cities as unique, but at the same time, presents their unique experiences as models that can be useful for other geographic areas. In the chapter on Los Angeles he writes: "The experience with immigrants in Los Angeles teaches that community development organizations sometimes must alter their usual practices if they wish to serve these population groups." In the chapter on New York City, he highlights the dramatic transformation of South Bronx, and illustrates how the persistent and collaborative efforts of community leaders, financial intermediaries, and even private landlords can transform a troubled area into a livable one.

With so much attention these days being rightfully paid to the decline of aging, first-tier suburbs, Von Hoffman's book is a reveille not only to continue to support inner-city revitalization, but to learn from it. What makes Von Hoffman's book different from other recent books on inner-city revitalization is that he refrains from sugar-coating the difficulty and frustrations that come with overcoming problems that we have faced in inner-city areas in recent decades. Rather, its inspiration draws from the testament that the success of small-scale efforts has had a large-scale impact over time. He also points out that grassroots organizations and campaigns cannot do the work alone, and ultimately local political support and access to capital play an equally important role in the process. The book also includes many photographs of people, which for unknown reasons is not too common in books about urban planning and housing. In one word, House by House is inspirational.

Buy this book


Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment
by Alan A. Altshuler, David E. Luberoff (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy/Brookings Institution, August 2003)

Mega-Projects presents an insightful and critical, if cynical, evaluation of specific revitalization, transportation, and other massive public works projects in American cities, notably Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Portland and Seattle. Authors Alan Altshuler and David Luberoff develop these case studies through a framework of how well leading theories of urban politics explain the topic of large-scale public investment in infrastructure. The authors draw out common themes from these projects, and build on the work of others to analyze the politics of public investment in urban renewal, downtown retailing, convention centers and sports facilities.

In their discussion of the four eras of public investment in infrastructure, perhaps the most interesting contribution is on the Era of "Do No Harm," in which infrastructure investment declined through the 70's and 80's. They write: "The most significant new criterion that mega-projects advocates now had to satisfy was avoidance of disruptive side effects--on neighborhoods, parks, natural species, historic sites, and a panoply of other valued community assets." What is particularly striking is how this era not only eventually stifled the building of mega-projects, such as highways, but also increased the building of projects "without substantial neighborhood or environmental disruption."

By integrating fifty years of urban development history with case studies, urban political theory, and American politics, Althuler and Luberoff expose the often obscure and under-reported field of infrastructure planning to the daylight it deserves, and offer surprising findings about how to go about planning for successful mega-projects.

Buy this book

Modern Architecture and Other Essays
by Vincent Scully, selected by Neil Levine (Princeton University Press, January 2003)

Vincent Scully, born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, began teaching architecture and art history at Yale University in 1948. He went on to become one of the most influential scholars and critics of modern architecture and urbanism in the world. To date, he has written over 15 books and more than 120 articles. During his career, which continues to this day, Scully became well acquainted with master architects from Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Robert Venturi to (also his students) Maya Lin, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. This work, one of the first such books on Scully, provides a glimpse into his illustrious career, including his often central role in controversial architectural issues from the 1950s to the 1990s.

After a thorough biographical sketch, the selected essays focus on three major topics: art history and theory (including Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting: Environment, Act and Illusion), architecture (including analyses of Mies, Le Corbusier, Wright, and Kahn), and urbanism. With this final topic, Scully distills the relationship of many architectural elements to the overall built environment. His critical The Death of The Street (1963) laments how the addition of the Pan-Am building to Park Avenue symbolizes modernism's destruction of the street fabric. Doldrums in the Suburbs (1965) catalogues the problems of anti-urban tract houses after World War II. His 1969 Discourse for the Royal Institute of British Architects blasts the destructive force of urban renewal projects, and helped plant the seed for historic preservation efforts around the country. In the book's final two essays, written in the 1990s, Scully discusses the need for an "architecture of community," or what we now call New Urbanism, of which Scully is a prominent supporter. Although Scully's views on architecture and urbanism have certainly evolved over the last half century, an entire community has been listening closely, and this collection serves as an important account of his lasting influence.

Buy this book

Special thanks to Planetizen's Connie Chung and David Gest for preparing the 2004 Top 10 Booklist.

If you have an questions or comments regarding this list please contact us at info@planetizen.com.