Top 10 Books - 2005

The following list of top 10 books published in 2004 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.

A Field Guide To Sprawl by Dolores Hayden (W.W. Norton & Company, New York)

Reading and viewing A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden is at once intriguing, terrifying, morbidly fascinating, and fun. In her new book, Hayden, a prolific Yale professor who has written extensively on suburbs and sprawl (Designing the American Dream, Building Suburbia), brings a vision of urban planning's most contentious issue into the 21st century. The results, as eloquently illustrated by Jim Wark's low angle aerial photography, are not pretty. From starter castles to tire dumps, drive-throughs to litter on a stick, Hayden's "devil's dictionary" has captured the modern vocabulary of America's great non-urban wilderness. After a brief introduction to the causes and consequences of sprawl (which Hayden defines as "unregulated growth expressed as careless new use of land and other resources as well as abandonment of older built areas"), the book presents 51 definitions epitomizing the phenomenon, each brought to life by Wark's photos. The aerial shots are at times powerfully common, scarily familiar, and completely shocking. Readers steal glimpses of obscenely large tract mansions benefiting from the Federal government's mansion subsidy, then ogle over the massive, often impervious surface areas of truck cities, mall gluts and category-killers.

While Hayden has elegantly assembled the book's colorful terminology, she did not invent it. Instead, she cultivated the creative words from books, newspaper articles, the "lively slang" of real estate developers, and general word of mouth. The resulting portrait of the American landscape is often ugly and depressing, but by updating the vocabulary of the debate on sprawl, Hayden has equipped planners and citizens alike with the tools they need to speak about sprawl and do something about it.

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Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse
by Joshua Olsen (Urban Land Institute, Washington, D.C.)

Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse chronicles the life of one of the most influential developers in American history. Author Joshua Olsen, a former Fulbright scholar and real estate professional, thoroughly reviews Rouse's long career, from the creation of some of the first enclosed suburban shopping malls to the promulgation of the "festival marketplace" as a tool for city revitalization.

Along the way, Rouse promoted part of the urban renewal concept – seeking to break up the "grim, massive inner city" into "neighborhoods of human scale" – that made its way into the Housing Act of 1954. Later Rouse made the realization that demand for enclosed shopping malls with ample parking existed even in regions with milder weather that did not require a climate-controlled shopping experience, and today the results are ubiquitous. Given enough capital, Rouse embarked on an epic quest to build Columbia, a new town in Howard County, Maryland – one that, according to Olsen, was designed to respect the land, create a place to encourage human growth, create a whole city (not just a residential suburb), and make a profit. In the 1970s and 80s, Rouse's ideas would spark development of Faneuil Hall in Boston, the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and Harborplace in Baltimore. In his retirement, Rouse would turn his focus to the poor, advocating for the role of the private sector in support of public needs, such as affordable housing. Olsen's detailed account of "The Messianic Master Builder" (LIFE Magazine, 1967) encompasses Rouse's family life, religious beliefs, and complex and sometimes contradictory urban theories. One of Rouse's heroes, Daniel Burnham, famously proclaimed, "Make no little plans..." Better Places, Better Lives attests to Rouse's sometimes controversial fulfillment of Burnham's lofty goal.

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Dark Age Ahead
by Jane Jacobs (Random House, New York)

Ever since publishing her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Jane Jacobs has expanded her focus, writing on The Economy of Cities (1969), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), and The Nature of Economies (2000). Now, with Dark Age Ahead, she tackles her most impressive topic yet: western civilization. Jacobs, using the sweep of human history as evidence (somewhat in the fashion of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which she frequently cites), argues that western culture is heading towards a "dead end." Focusing on the United States and Canada, with some references to Europe, Jacobs believes that as our culture shifts from agrarianism to a "technology-based future," we are in real danger of losing our memory of the old world, and before we know it, we could enter our own Dark Age. How could this be possible in the time of libraries, television, and the internet? Jacobs convincingly asserts that a significant part of any culture is transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth and setting an example for others. Teachers and cooks, for example, don't just read books to learn their trade – they learn firsthand from others with experience. In a manner similar to aboriginal cultures the world over that have suffered cultural Dark Ages (mostly) brought on by outside forces and a shift in economies, few people in the U.S. today remember what it's like to leave their homes unlocked while on vacation. According to Jacobs, our entire vision of the past could slip away.

Jacobs describes how the five pillars of society – community and family, higher education, science and technology, governmental representation, and self-regulation of the learned professions – are showing signs of decay. Later, asserting the interlocking nature of cultural problems, she attempts to "unwind" one of the "viscous cycles" damaging our cities and landscape: In the 1930s and 40s, depression and war led to homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, which led the government to promote homeownership and long-term, low-interest mortgages. This trend led Americans to sprawl into the countryside, taking down farmland along their way, and furthering the loss of our agrarian culture. Ultimately, Jacobs proves optimistic – Dark Age Ahead is a warning, not a death knell. Suburbs, for one, can be densified and mass transit introduced. In general, by recognizing the problems facing our culture today, we can avoid downfall "by tenaciously retaining the underlying values responsible for the culture's nature and success."

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Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Architecture
R. Stephen Sennott, Editor (Fitzroy Dearborn, New York)

A monumental effort, the 1,500+ page Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Architecture runs the gamut from complex architectural theories like deconstructivism to a building block of American commerce, the department store. In between are a wide variety of deeply interconnected people, places, buildings, and theories constituting 100 years of architecture and planning. While a substantial portion of entries deal with architects, firms, specific buildings, and architectural materials, schools, and movements, planning issues are heartily represented. General concepts like the Garden City movement, historic preservation, public housing, utopian planning, and edge cities join Jane Jacobs, Victor Gruen, and Le Corbusier in thorough discussions on issues of the built environment that have shaped the modern world.

For over five years, an international team of 300 writers – architectural historians, architects, engineers, preservationists, urban historians, critics, and scholars – crafted this painstakingly researched work. Each article in the three volumes runs from 1,000 to 4,000 words and includes an extensive bibliography for further reading on the subject. Capsule biographies give readers enough background information to understand the variegated issues, and large black and white photographs help illustrate them. The editor concedes that many entries had to be omitted for lack of time and space, although one term – perhaps belonging to the 21st century – remains curiously without an entry: sprawl.

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The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices

by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti (New Society Publishers, British Columbia, Canada)

The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices can be summed up in one word: eko-kommuner. In case your Swedish is a little rusty, that means "eco-municipalities." And in case your green planning vocabulary isn't quite up-to-date, eco-municipalities are local governments "that have adopted changes to sustainable practices throughout municipal policies and operations." This easy-to-read, user-friendly work by planner and sustainable development expert Sarah James and Swedish planner and economist Torbjorn Lahti focuses on the little-known efforts of over 60 Swedish towns to achieve a totally sustainable existence, using green techniques from ethanol-powered cars to sustainable agriculture and waste management. Although Sweden, unlike the United States, has signed onto the United Nations' model local sustainable development action plan (known as Agenda 21) and funds local sustainable development activities, the authors argue that in both countries, it is up to local municipalities to initiate their own environmental policies.

After discussing the basic concepts of sustainability and the efforts of Sweden's eko-kommuner, The Natural Step for Communities outlines a how-to guide for municipalities to develop their own programs, based on a theory of sustainability – the Natural Step framework. The guiding objectives of this framework are to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels, wasteful use of scarce metals and minerals, dependence on persistent chemicals, and encroachment upon nature, while meeting human needs fairly and efficiently. The authors believe that communities can achieve these goals with a bottom-up planning approach and a holistic, systems view, using local input to achieve political consensus and take action. The question is, can a grassroots sustainability movement in a country as large as the United States really take hold without Federal support?

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The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster
Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, Editors (Oxford University Press, Oxford)

Inspired by the events of September 11 but about much more, The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster investigates urban disasters throughout history and around the world, in an effort to determine how and why cities almost inevitably recover and thrive in their wake. According to editors Lawrence Vale (MIT professor and author of Architecture, Power, and National Identity and Reclaiming Public Housing) and Thomas Campanella (UNC professor and author of Republic of Shade and Cities from the Sky), city resilience in the face of disasters from volcano eruptions, to starvation, biological warfare, and displacement from urban renewal, is almost universal. Even totally devastated cities often survive as sites of tourism, education, remembrance, or myth. Warsaw rebuilt itself after annihilation in World War II; Mexico City survived and transformed itself after a 1985 earthquake; Washington, D.C. remained its nation's capitol even after many of its monuments were burned. What makes cities able to bounce back from catastrophe so forcefully and symbolically? Who decides how they recover, and whom the recovery benefits most?

The Resilient City presents a cogent theory of urban resilience and recovery using evidence from 14 essays representing various types of disasters. Each event varies in the scale of its destruction, the loss of life, and the cause (natural (such as earthquakes), natural with human intervention (forest fires), human (terrorism), or sociopolitical/economic (collapse of a local economy)). And each city responds to trouble differently, a complex mix of politics, propaganda, and culture. Among the editors' key conclusions are the ideas that cities' narratives of resilience are highly contested political necessities that ultimately have the power to spark national renewal and symbolize a greater resilience – that of the human spirit.

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Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It
by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D. (One World, Ballantine Books, New York)

Between 1948 and 1973, urban renewal displaced a million people in 2,500 neighborhoods in 993 American cities. Of those neighborhoods impacted by the far-reaching Federal program, approximately 1,600 were African-American – a statistic that led many to equate urban renewal with "Negro Removal." In Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, Columbia University professor and psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove humanizes the disproportionate impact of urban renewal on African-Americans. Many of those displaced by urban renewal, Fullilove argues, have suffered from root shock, or "a traumatic stress reaction related to the destruction of one's emotional ecosystem." This condition of shock brought on by displacement, a result of the loss of a massive web of connections – of a way of being – is the problem the 21st century must solve, according to Fullilove.

Through a careful of study of three African-American neighborhoods devastated by urban renewal – the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Central Ward in Newark, and Roanoke, Virginia – along with intriguing artwork, cartoons, historic photographs, and maps, Fullilove puts a face to communities lost a generation ago. In the process, she develops an "aesthetics of equity" in the hope of avoiding future calamities in neighborhood revitalization efforts: respect the common life the way you would an individual life, treasure the buildings history has given us, break the cycle of disinvestment, and ensure freedom of movement. Root Shock acknowledges that there is a time for black Americans to mourn their heritage lost to urban renewal, as well as a time to heal and regroup. At the same time, a task for everyone remains the creation of neighborhoods in which to dwell, not divide.

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Special thanks to Planetizen's David Gest for preparing the 2005 Top 10 Booklist.

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