A Planning Contrarian's Reading List

Samuel Staley's picture
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Transcontinental flights are a great time to catch up on reading, and a recent flight from San Jose to Chicago inspired this blog post. As I was reading book #1 (below), I realized that a number books have been published recently that have important things to say about cities although they might be dismissed too easily as reactionary, ideological, or simply not relevant to urban planning.

As a self-described planning contrarian, I thought it might be useful to make my pitch for a few that I think should be on every planner's bookshelf, whether they agree with the author or not. Some of these books have become required reading in my classes on urban economics. I've chosen them, however, not because they provoke (although all of them do in their own way), but because I believe they provide compelling insights into the way our cities are growing and, ultimately, the way we practice planning and city building.

  1. Don't Call It Sprawl: Metropolitan Structure in the Twenty-First Century, by William T. (Tom) Bogart, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-521-67803-2. Don't be fooled by the title. This is the most penetrating and insightful book on urban development that I've read in a long time. Tom's core thesis is that cities are best viewed as "trading places"-and that their role in metropolitan structure is based on these trading relationships within a spatial context. It's an elegant approach to understanding the complexity of US metropolitan areas. He's an economist though, so he can't resist throwing in a couple of formulas and regressions. But 95% of the book is accessible to the non-economist/statistician.
  2. The City: A Global History, by Joel Kotkin, Modern Library, 2005, ISBN: 0-679-60336-0. Joel has written a wonderfully compact and highly readable history of cities from ancient to modern times. Joel's journalistic background gives him the tools necessary to tell a dynamic story of cities that provokes while synthesizing big ideas with "long waves" of urban development. He triangulates his story around three themes that make cities work: safety, commerce, and the sacred.
  3. Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann, University of Chicago Press, 2005, 0-226-07690-3. One of Planetizen's top 10 books in 2006, this book is about much more than sprawl; it's about cities and their modern evolution through time. What Bob adds is an international perspective that is both contemporary and historical. Planners will struggle with his critique of Smart Growth, but the basic analysis should provoke some deep thinking about land use and urban development from a global perspective.
  4. The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, by Randal O'Toole, Cato Institute, 2007, ISBN: 978-1-933995-07-6. Unlike Randal's encyclopedic The Vanishing Automobile, this book is a complete critique of planning. His iconoclastic style will be hard for many academic and professional planners to take, but it will take a planner with a rare commitment to denial to dismiss a lot of what Randal says in this book. Those reading with an open mind will also find that Randal is not the ideological reactionary he is often cast in debates; his views are deeply rooted in nearly four decades of practical personal and professional experience with real plans and real planning.
  5. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, by Thomas Friedman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, ISBN: 978-0-374-29288-1. This is the quintessential exposition of why the global economy matters. Unfortunately, Friedman doesn't discuss cities, but it doesn't take much of a leap to understand the implications of economic globalization and integration for urban and metropolitan development. This is an essential companion to #1 above. Frankly, I don't know how anyone can discuss cities without understanding the insights that underpin this book. I know where I was and what I was doing when I realized the world is flat. (It was in Tallahassee in March 2000.)
 There are many other books that provide provocative insights into cities and their development, but I don't have that much space in a blog post. But, let me mention three others that might be worth perusing: The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape by Joel Kotkin (Random House, 2000) provides a very accessible look at how technology is shaping our cities. War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life, by Wendell Cox (iUniverse, 2006) distills a lot of empirical research into a pretty thin book that is as accessible as it is inciting. Wendell is the consummate empiricist, and his book draws on the information gleaned from more than 5,000 documents on his three web sites, www.publicpurpose.com, www.demographia.com, and www.rentalcartours.com. Finally, I have to give a nod to my own book growth management edited with fellow economist Randy Holcombe at Florida State University: Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001)
Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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