The 100 "Best" Books on City-Making Ever Written?

After looking over his extensive library of books on urbanism, Brent Toderian selects the 100 best books on city-making that he's collected and read over the years.

11 minute read

December 13, 2013, 3:30 PM PST

By Brent Toderian

Cities for People

Island Press / Cities for People

I usually don't associate happiness with things, "stuff," material goods, but I have to admit that there are few things that make me happier than my books. Ever since I was a kid, I've loved libraries and book stores, and when I saw that a childhood friend's home had a room full of floor-to-ceiling book shelves, I knew that one day I would have to have a room like that. It's unlikely that I'll ever embrace the growing trend of downloading books on tablets - for me, there's simply nothing quite like sitting in my “library” (the enclosed balcony in our downtown apartment), surrounded by my favourite books on city-making.

I like to claim that I have the most extensive library of books on urbanism of any city-making practitioner - at least for any non-professor! If anyone would care to challenge my possible self-delusion, bring it on!

Back in the early 2000's when I was Plan Canada's contributing editor for book reviews, I wrote a piece on the 10 most important urban design books ever written. It was in the days before such articles would end up online, so I haven’t been able to find it - at least not without digging through boxes in storage that I haven't touched in years.

I remember that the list included some of the more obvious greats like Jacobs (both of them, Jane & Allan), Whyte, Alexander, Unwin, Cullen, and others that may or may not still be in print - I wish I could remember all 10. Even if I could, would I pick exactly the same 10 today? I doubt it, since the books out there, and I, have changed a lot since then.

Regardless, with so many more books on the shelves now than I had 12 years ago, why would I stop at the top 10? Why not the top 100? In fact, it would be tough to pick just 100!

So, in looking over my bookshelves tonight, here are 100 of my favourite books on city-making that I’ve collected and read over the years. Many are quite old, but still completely relevant. Others are only a decade or two old, but may not as relevant as they once were... but they are included because they were very meaningful and valuable to me at the time I read them.

Many are possibly not in print anymore, but are worth keeping an eye out for, particularly in used bookstores (that may be where I myself bought them – my favorite place to buy books on urbanism used to be used/antiquarian bookstores). I still remember the days I found my cherished copies of Camillo Sitte's "The Art of Building Cities" (1945) and Charles Mulford Robinson's "Modern Civic Art, or The City Made Beautiful" (1909) in their respective stores. But don't worry, if you don't love the classics like I do, I’ve bolded the relatively newer books in the list, to help you focus on more recent publications. While I was at it, I’ve italicized the books that I think were written to be particularly readable and entertaining to the non city-making professional – something I think more books should strive to achieve.

Some books on this list I actually disagree with - maybe they’ve been part of the problem, or part of the failing of city-building since the mid-20th century. Regardless, I still enjoyed reading them because they made me think or challenged my assumptions. Other classic books in my library that I disagree with, like those written by Le Corbusier & Frank Lloyd Wright (who had terrible ideas about, and effects on, cities), I just couldn't bring myself to include, even though I considered it important to read them for educational reasons.

Are these books really the "best" books in my library? I confess, I deliberately misled you in the title of this post because I thought it sounded like a better title than "100 favourite books." "Best" is a term I don't usually use, as it is highly subjective. Really, is there a “better” book than Jacobs’ “Death and Life?” Likely not, but I’ve put two others ahead of it, as they had just a bit more of a unique influence on me, likely in part because the authors have become both mentors and friends. So don't expect this list to be “scientific” – it’s highly emotional, and personal. These may not be the best in my library, but I can say that at this particular moment in time, they are my favourites.

Lastly, don't take the specific ranking too seriously – I didn't really agonize over whether I liked a particular book 22nd, 24th, or 30th. But it’s close enough for you to get the picture.

So here goes, from last to first.

100. Sustainable Communities
Sim Van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe
99. Design with Nature
Ian McHarg
98. Ecocities
Richard Register

97. Highline: the Inside Story of New York City's Park In The Sky
David and Hammond

96. The Geography of Nowhere
James Howard Kunstler
95. Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination
Lance Berelowitz
94. Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future
Matt Hern
93. Building Barcelona
Peter Rowe
92. Cities Back from the Edge: New Life For Downtown
Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz
91. Urban Design and the Bottom Line: Optimizing the Return on Perception
Dennis Jerke, Douglas Porter, Terry Lassar
90. Delirious New York
Rem Koolhaas
(I like his writing much better than his architecture.)
89. The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning
John Sewell
88. Sprawl Repair Manual
Galina Tachieva
87. Public Sydney: Drawing the City
Thalis and Cantrill
86. Agricultural Urbanism
Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland
85. Learning from Las Vegas
Robert Venturi et al
84. Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities
Southworth and Ben-Joseph
83. Cities and Natural Process
Michael Hough
82. Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture
Witold Rybczynski
81. The Principles of Green Urbanism: Transforming the City for Sustainability
Steffen Lehmann
80. Smart Cities
Anthony Townsend (it's this high because I haven't finished reading it!)
79. Civilizing American Cities
Frederick Law Olmsted
78. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age
P.D. Smith
77. The New City
John Lorinc
76. Designing Community: Charrettes,Master Plans and Form-Based Codes
David Walters
75. The Option of Urbanism
Christopher Leinberger
74. City Making in Paradise: Nine Decisions that Saved Vancouver
Mike Harcourt and Ken Cameron

73. The Wealth of Cities
John Norquist

72. The Geography of Hope
Chris Turner
71. The Great Good Place
Ray Oldenburg
70. Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City
Mikoleit & Purckhauer
69. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space
Don Mitchell
68. The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development
Hank Dittmar and Gloria Ohland
67. The Fractured Metropolis
Jonathan Barnett
66. Walking Home: the Life and Lessons of a City Builder
Ken Greenberg
65. Wrestling with Moses
Anthony Flint
64. E-Topia: "Urban Life, Jim – But Not As We Know It"
William Mitchell (& City of Bits)
63. The Next American Metropolis
Peter Calthorpe
62. Grand Urban Rules
Alex Lehnerer
61. The Language of Towns and Cities: A Visual Dictionary
Dhiru Thadani
60. Public Places Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design
Matthew Carmona, Tim Heath, Taner Oc, Steve Tiesdell
59. Cities are Good for You: the Genius of the Metropolis
Leo Hollis
58. Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change
Peter Calthorpe
57. A Country of Cities: a Manifesto for an Urban America
Vishaan Chakrabarti
56. Urban Design Downtown: Poetics and Politics of Form
Loukaitou-Sideris & Banerjee
55. The Pedestrian Pocketbook: a New Suburban Design Strategy
Doug Kelbaugh
54. The Old Way of Seeing
Jonathan Hale
53. Green Metropolis
David Owen
52. City Comforts: How to Build and Urban Village
David Sucher
51. Global City Blues
Daniel Solomon
50. People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Space
Cooper Marcus & Francis
49. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs
Dunham-Jones and Williamson
48. Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities
Patrick Condon
47. The New Civic Art
Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Alminana
46. Sustainable Transportation Planning
Jeffrey Tumlin
45. Triumph of the City
Edward Glaeser
44. Who's Your City
Richard Florida
43. Perverse Cities
Pamela Blais
42. The Public Face of Architecture: Civic Culture and Public Spaces
Nathan Glazer and Mark Lilla
41. Cities of Tomorrow
Peter Hall
40. Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature
Douglas Farr
39. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
McDonough and Braungart
38. Visualizing Density
Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean
37. Suburban Nation
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck
36. Eco-Urbanity: Towards Well Mannered Built Environments
Darko Radovic
35. Le Pieton Dans la Ville/Walking in the City: Sharing Public Space
Jean-Jacques Terrin
34. Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being and Sustainability
Dannenberg et al
33. Good City Form
Kevin Lynch
32. The Vancouver Achievement
John Punter
31. Livable Streets
Donald Appleyard
30. The City in History
Lewis Mumford (and The Culture of Cities, The Highway and the City, The Urban Prospect, etc)
29. Town Spaces
Rob Krier
(or Urban Space by Rob Krier, can’t decide which one I like better)
28. New Design Cities
Commerce Design Montreal
27. Design for Ecological Democracy
Randolph Hester
26. The American Vitruvius: An Architects Handbook of Civic Art
Hegemann and Peets
25. Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change
Reid Ewing, Keith Bartholomew, Steve Winkelman, Jerry Walters, and Don Chen
24. The Great Reset
Richard Florida
23. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Charles Montgomery
22. The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
Robert A. Caro
21. The High Cost of Free Parking
Donald Shoup
20. Straphanger: Saving our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile
Taras Grescoe
(I had to put the walking, biking, and transit books in that order – those who know our Vancouver transportation mode prioritization policy will understand that order of things…)
19. Human Transit
Jarrett Walker
18. City Cycling
Pucher & Buehler
17. Walkable City
Jeff Speck
16. Cerdà and the Barcelona of the Future: Reality versus Project
Ajuntament de Barcelona
15. Modern Civic Art, or The City Made Beautiful
Charles Mulford Robinson
14. Cities and the Wealth of Nations
Jane Jacobs
13. The City Shaped (& its partner, The City Assembled)
Spiro Kostof
12. The Creative City
Charles Landry
11. Town Planning in Practice
Raymond Unwin
10. Life Between Buildings
Jan Gehl
9. The Image of the City
Kevin Lynch
8. Townscape
Gordon Cullen
7. The Art of Building Cities
Camillo Sitte
6. A Pattern Language
Christopher Alexander et al (& his whole series, including A New Theory of Urban Design; The Timeless Way of Building, etc.)
5. City: Rediscovering The Center
William H. Whyte
(includes its smaller predecessor, "the Social LIfe of Small Urban Spaces")
4. Great Streets
Allan Jacobs
3. The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Jane Jacobs
2. The Art of City Making
Charles Landry
1. Cities for People
Jan Gehl

Before I wrap this up, in addition to the 100 professional or pseudo-professional books above, I thought I’d add a few honourable mentions… unusual books that have influenced how I see city-making, but not really books specifically about city-making.

Honourable Mentions:

  • Oh, the Places You'll Go! – Dr. Seuss (That's right! Dr. Seuss understood placemaking!)
  • The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
  • The City and the City – China Mieville
  • Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino
  • The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
  • The Tipping Point, & Blink – both by Malcolm Gladwell

These books may not be your favourites, and if so, I’d love to hear why. Would you include other books on the list? Are there books on mine that you disagree with or dislike? Do you disagree with the order? I look forward to the discussion and debate.


In the 4 days since posting, the discussion and debate about my choices on this list have been vigorous, interesting, and fun – the response has been remarkable! The Planetizen commenters listed below reflect only a small portion of that, adding to the many tweets and emails I’ve received.

With the benefit of hindsight and this great discussion, here are a few additional thoughts on the Top 100:

As a result of persuasive lobbying (and not from the authors), I agree that three books should probably have been moved up on the list – Duany/Plater-Zyberk/Speck’s Suburban Nation, Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere, and McHarg’s Design With Nature. I won’t say how far up I would move them, and I suspect it wouldn't be as much as their supporters might like, but their complex contribution warrants a different and more complementary number. For those of you who might suspect that I’m capitulating to pressure, you should know that many other books were also argued for – the difference in the case of these three books, is that I agreed with the arguments.

I would also add four books to the list that were definite oversights:

  • Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities, which in some ways influenced me more than the included Cities and The Wealth of Nations;
  • Douglas Kelbaugh’s Common Place: Toward Neighborhood & Regional Design;
  • Leon Krier’s The Architecture of Communities; and
  • Randall Arendt’s Rural by Design (urbanism isn’t just for cities…).

In addition, there are a few other highly lobbied-for books that I might include in future lists, but the truth is, I haven’t read them yet – books like Doug Saunders’ Arrival City. Many of the comments have resulted in a great “must-read” list for me for the new year.

I was amused that the most controversial inclusion was my tongue-in-cheek inclusion of The Fountainhead into the “honourable mentions” (right after Dr. Seuss!). Although I noted in the text that I had included works that I disagreed with, I now realize the weakness of not doing this article as an annotated Top 100 – that would have allowed a brief explanation of why each is on the list. For The Fountainhead, I explained the following in the comments below:

Roark as a character, though disturbing in some ways, is also very interesting in other ways, including as a cautionary tale, and instructive in considering the way some overly ego-driven architects think (and still are trained to think). As a rugged individualist, un-civic, he is indeed an “anti-planner,” and an “anti-urbanist.” But I recommend the book frequently as interesting reading, despite my strong disagreement with Ayn Rand's philosophies & politics.

Lastly, I expected that my choice for #1 (Gehl) and #2 (Landry) would be controversial, given the unique importance of #3 (Jacobs’ Death and Life), and indeed, I’ve received some disagreement. But I’ve also gotten agreement, and have heard from many who have told me they’re now keen to read Gehl and Landry.  In the end, I stand by my choice for my top 3.

Thank you all for the comments and discussion – I hope it continues! City-making is supported by a rich library of great literary works that we can all benefit from. I hope this has inspired your holiday reading!

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian

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