City Books For Non-Planning Nerds

As the library of books on urbanism expands by the year, here are some fun, engaging titles for city nerds and non-nerds alike.

April 24, 2017, 12:00 PM PDT

By Josh Stephens @jrstephens310


Bravo da Luz / Shutterstock

Last weekend at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's annual Journalists Forum, we learned more about cities, infrastructure, and land use in two days than most people learn in a lifetime. Fittingly, the Lincoln Institute is around the corner from Harvard University and a mile or so away from MIT. It’s an environment ripe for the transmission of wisdom. 

Of course, not everyone can dedicate an entire weekend to learning about cities. In some sense, we don’t need to. The vast majority of Americans, and an increasing share of the world’s population—50 percent and rising—live in urban areas. We are all experts by experience. 

And yet, a rich scholarly and journalistic tradition—propagated by many of my colleagues at this weekend’s conference—surrounds cities: their economies, cultures, physical environments, and demographics. And, just as a visit to Paris or Tokyo, or even Des Moines or Doha, can be breathtaking to the curious visitor, so can many books be to the eager reader. 

With that in mind, I came up with a selection of books about cities and, in some cases, obliquely related to cities that I’ve strike me as readable even for those who aren’t avowed urban nerds. They’re not necessarily the "best" or most groundbreakingPlanetizen has a fine list for that alreadybut they’re all revealing and engaging. I’ve put them in rough order from distressing to hopeful, with some follow-ups and honorable mentions. (I’ve also linked to a few that I have reviewed.)

So, stake out a piece of lawn in your local park, go out for a cup of (non-Starbucks) coffee, or grab a corner of a parklet and take a stroll through a few of these....

Geography of Nowhere, by James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler is known for his acerbity, salty language, and unapologetic denouncement of American placelessness. You too might get a little angry about the world that the past two generations built for us. And rightfully so. In God’s Own Junkyard, Peter Blake is more poetic but no less disappointed about the degradation of our landscape.  

Friday Night Lights, by Buzz Bissinger

The book that spawned by movie and the TV show, Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights portrays life in a small Texas city so downtrodden that its only salvation is in high school football. Why are places like Midland-Odessa so depressed? In Big Box Swindle, Stacy Mitchell offers a few answers.

Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour

Venturi, et. al. tell us what gained — intellectually at least — from the most dramatic spawn of 20th century urbanism. In his surprisingly affecting account of light pollution, the The End of Night, Paul Bogard tells us what we lost.  

Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida 

Not all of the magic in cities is subtle these days. Many cities—or, at least, many neighborhoodsacross the country have become markedly more interesting, pleasant, and social places in the past 15 years or so. Richard Florida deserves credit for predicting and, to an extent, encouraging the rise of hipster America and the resurgence of center cities. By his own admission in the New Urban Crisis, Florida’s advocacy was incomplete and his predictions perhaps too optimistic. 

The Economy of Cities, by Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece Death and Life of Great American Cities deserves all the praise it has received. But can be a frustrating read for anyone who doesn’t live in the type of city that Jacobs celebrates. I recommend instead the more compact Economy of Cities, which explains how cities operate on daily, annual, and generational bases. Edward Glaeser, while not as concerned with cities’ aesthetics, confirms Jacobs’ theories with an abundance of well explained economic and sociological data in Triumph of the City

This Land, by Anthony Flint

A lucid, comprehensive primer on the economics and policy of land use. Anthony Flint, of the Lincoln Institute, makes the subject far more engaging than it sounds. 

How Paris Became Paris, by Joan DeJean

Paris, the City of Love, the City of Light, and the urban ideal for romantics and aesthetes the world over, did not happen by accident. DeJean masterfully connects history, politics, architecture, and culture.  

Just Kids, by Patti Smith; Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, by Jeff Chang

Art—its production and consumption—depends on three things: struggle, diversity, and human interaction. As Chang and Smith demonstrate, art is the product of cities (particularly New York City). As Elizabeth Currid tells it in The Warhol Economy, art is also the economic lifeblood of cities.

Walkable City, by Jeff Speck

Speck picks up on the immortal advice of Jane Jacobs and makes it clear, relevant, and practical for redesigning today's cities and reconsidering our lives within them. By describing a possible urban future with energy and unusual clarity, it's one of the most hopeful books I’ve read in recent years. 

Outside Lies Magic, by John Silgoe

A lovely, attentive look at the minutiae that surround us. Stilgoe, the master of landscape perception, could write symphonies about parking lots, but writes of the real history, intrigue, and beauty that lies in cities. 

Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is the former editor of, and current contributing editor to, the California Planning & Development Report, the state's leading publication covering urban planning.

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