(updated August 2014)
This is a list of books I’ve read on transportation, planning, cities, and other related topics. I’ll try to separate books by subject, but the broad nature of urbanism many of these books seek to tackle often defies a narrow definition.
This list is by no means authoritative or complete, I’ll work on adding to it over time. The categories also aren’t definitive, but serve as an attempt to provide some organization.
For various blog and internet items worth sharing, my del.ici.ous feed is available here (also in the blog sidebar)
If there’s one classic of American urbanism, this is it.
An excellent summary of the systemic transportation issues facing cities and regions in the US. Marshall approaches the issues as a journalist, not a planner, offering unique insights and accessible explanations of how our cities evolve following their transportation skeletons.
Cities in Full – Steve Belmont (2002)
Belmont tackles every issue regarding the physical form of cities and regions in this book, from density to transportation. An excellent synthesis of the multitude of elements and feedback loops in our cities.
A persuasive argument in favor of cities, calling for America to build “hyperdense” cities that can support heavy rail transit. Chakrabarti’s arguments are strong, but the details of his policy agenda and approach for implementation are missing. The zeal of the passionate argument in favor of cities leads to language like ‘hyperdensity,’ which might not be the best way to frame the argument.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty - Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (2012)
This isn’t a book about cities per se, but it does speak to economies and governance and with lessons for cities, not just nations. The authors posit that the main difference between prosperous societies and impoverished ones is the development of inclusive political and economic institutions, spreading power across the society instead of extractive institutions controlled by a few. The critique is that the book short changes other environmental factors such as geography. Added to the list January 2014.
The ultimate inquiry into market based allocation of parking resources and the implications for urbanism. It’s a lengthy read, but well worth it for anyone interested in urbanism. Transportation is vital to urbanism, and parking is often forgotten as a key element in transportation.
A comprehensive history of the circumstances leading up to the planning and building of DC’s Metro. A must-read for any DC resident interested in transportation. Like all things urban, the history of the transportation system carries with it a great deal of the history of the city, as well.
Walker does well to write for multiple audiences, both professionals and lay people. He emphasizes the role of geometry in transit, and how clear thinking on any number of trade-offs will allow for better decision-making.
A story about globalization and the power of agglomeration economies in urban development, told through the lens of a boom in air travel around the world. The description about the value of air travel is persuasive, but Kasarda’s prescription for additional aerotropoli is a tad formulaic. Nevertheless, Lindsay’s description of how air travel enables agglomeration and helps concentrate economic activity is an important story.
Levinson’s history of the shipping container is a fascinating look behind the scenes of how we move goods around. Consequences for cities involve containers making old break bulk piers in Manhattan, San Francisco, and other ports obsolete; lower shipping costs enabling greater trade; intermodal shipping opportunities eventually enabling all sorts of new models for trade and distribution.
Levinson documents the challenges of overcoming proprietary interests to develop a series of standards that ensure interoperability, as well as the economic and institutional challenges (from port operators to unions to shipping companies to regulators) in embracing the new model. Levinson provides an insightful account of the difficulties in implementing new systems. Added to the list in August 2014.
This short e-book looks at the regulatory constraints on American cities (and therefore American urban economies) and the costs and consequences of those policies. The example of local zoning regulations so restricting growth in Silicon Valley that housing costs are out of reach of even well-payed engineers (yet alone janitors and line cooks) has real costs to our economy. Also includes excellent summaries of the economic benefits of dense urban environments.
The Rent Is Too Damn High - Matthew Yglesias (2012)
Similar to The Gated City, Yglesias looks at regulatory impacts on American cities and examines the unintended consequences of such regulation. Short and concise, yet does a good job in summarizing the issues. More discussion here and here.
Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser (2011)
Book-length praise of all things urban – backed with data and analysis – from the Harvard economist. The descriptive and theoretical portions are excellent, particularly on the benefits of density. The policy prescriptions are less so. Nevertheless, valuable for the broad support of cities and the economic agglomerations they represent.
The Economy of Cities - Jane Jacobs (1969)
Some of Jacobs’ best work: notes that cities drive economic development, focusing on import replacement.
Cities and the Wealth of Nations – Jane Jacobs (1984)
Jacobs here argues that cities, not nation-states, are the key players in the global economy.
Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti delivers a concise and readable summary of the economic geography of innovative industries – the kinds of jobs that produce what Jane Jacobs referred to as “New Work” (Moretti cites Jacobs’ books on urban economics repeatedly). This transition to the ‘innovation sector’ means a profound shift in the economic geography of the US, just as past shifts from agriculture to manufacturing had large impacts on where and how we live. Moretti also explains how these innovative jobs tend to cluster together and the paradox of location and local interactions becoming more and more important in a world of globalization and ever-improving communication technologies.
Also, credit to Moretti for writing such an accessible book. In the acknowledgements, he notes that “serious economists are not supposed to write books – they are supposed to write technical papers.” Yet, such papers don’t easily spread outside of the academia bubble and into the hands of planners and policy-makers. Added to the list in August 2014.
Economics and Statistics:
Excellent summary of research on behavioral economics and human decision making. Kahneman’s thesis describes two systems, in wiki’s words: “System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” The book looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each and how they influence our actions.
The lessons can be applied to many disciplines, but for urban issues: the ideas of loss aversion and that influence on NIMBY actions, as well as how we end up with the regulations that provide such unintended consequences (as described by Yglesias and Avent); framing issues and the consequences on decision making and governance; sunk cost and how a good project might sprawl into a boondoggle; among others.
The first installment of Taleb’s trilogy starts with the premise that humans are oblivious (thanks to our cognitive biases) to the role of randomness in our lives and that we make mistakes about the causality of events all the time. Given the assumptions about causality baked into numerous decision-making points as a part of the city planning process, as well as role of randomness in any sort of complex system (like a city), this is an excellent read to better understand the limits of our own understanding. Added to the list January 2014.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable - Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)
The second book in Taleb’s series discusses the impacts of improbable events. A Black Swan is a surprise event with a large impact, and one that can be rationalized after the fact. Taleb posits that these unexpected changes (events, by definition, that we cannot predict) are tremendously consequential. One of the more interesting arguments for cities is the narrative fallacy, where we use stories to explain things, even if the explanation is wrong.
Taleb’s tone is often openly antagonistic towards establishment figures (more so than in his first book, Fooled by Randomness). You can find an excerpt from the book introducing the concept here. Added to the list January 2014.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder - Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)
Taleb’s third and most recent book builds off of the previous two, not just to find random events of large significance, but things that gain from that chaos. The mythical version would be the Hydra; cut off one head, and it grows two more. It is a different concept from resiliency, because the disorder must actually make the subject stronger. The idea can apply to some cities and urban economies, where creative destruction makes the end result stronger. Added to the list January 2014.
This book from the popular election-prediction, baseball statistician, poker player and quant analysis guru talks about all different kinds of prediction across all sorts of fields (macroeconomics, meteorology, elections, baseball, global warming, and geology) and the relative successes and failures of each. Some fare better than others, some express more confidence in their predictions than others (and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with their accuracy), and some are complete failures.
Given the outsized role of prediction in planning for the future, understanding the limits of those predictions is key in shaping policies and plans. Don Shoup’s takedown of the pseudo-science of parking minimum requires in The High Cost of Free Parking hits on the same themes of the lack of accuracy and precision; some blog discussion on those topics here and here. Added to the list January 2014.
Zoning and Regulation:
A concise re-framing of the debate about market outcomes in planning and development. Levine disputes the idea that sprawl is a free market outcome, but rather a product of regulation. Arguments in favor of more traditional urban growth often needs to prove that it won’t increase traffic (as one example) to justify alterations to the rules that demand auto-centric development. Levine argues because of myth of free-market sprawl is just that, reforms to allow more urban development should be framed as market-friendly and as improving consumer choice. Doing so shifts the default option for urban development.
Levine was one of my graduate school professors at the University of Michigan. Added to the list January 2014.
Lays out the way we make decisions and the powerful implications of default options on the eventual outcomes. Thaler and Sunstein call this a ‘choice architecture.’ Implications about choice architecture for cities are numerous, both in terms of individual behavior (such as travel mode choice) as well as the firm level such as zoning codes and development decisions (and the unintended consequences therein).
Sunstein also wrote about his government service in the Obama administration, applying these principles of choice architecture and libertarian paternalism to government, but Nudge is by far the more interesting book. Wikipedia’s summary provides a good synopsis of book’s argument. Added to the list January 2014.
A classic urban design book, dealing primarily with conceptual understandings of space, wayfinding (the book coins the term), and navigation.
An excellent history of urban design, touching on the main elements of cities throughout the evolution of human civilization. The book features amazing visuals in illustrations accompanying the text. Kostof’s prose can be over the top, but the combination with the visuals makes for a superb primer on the elements of urban design.
Duneier’ ethnography of sidewalk vendors in Greenwich Village offers unparalleled insight into the day to day life of various street people in New York. Thanks to Duneier’s painstaking research, the book offers a readable narrative that captures the details of daily life while also addressing the larger issues of city life.
Classic history of DC home rule up through 1994 – and therefore, a history of Marion Barry. Unfortunately out of print; cherish your copies!
A history of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern industrial cities and California. Told through the eyes of three individuals who left the South to establish new lives outside of the direct influence of Jim Crow, it tells the story of a key part of urban history in the US. For more, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s initial reactions to the book. Added to the list January 2014.
Edge City describes the rise of the suburban office/retail node, usually located at a key transportation intersection, obtaining a critical mass of jobs and retail and pulling the business focus away from the traditional downtowns and business districts. Garreau’s description of the thought process behind development deals is insightful (as well as the impacts of unintended consequences, development following the path of least resistance, etc), but hardly limited to the suburban context of edge city. For more, see the post adding it to the list in August 2014.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York: Robert Caro (1974)
More than just a documentation of Moses’s life and his use of the institutions to wield power, Caro’s book provides an excellent history of New York City and the background for so many of the institutions that shaped and continue to shape the city to this day. Caro’s focus on the institutional levers of power (a theme he carried through to his biographies of LBJ) gives the book applicability to any major city.
Excellent narrative of the integral histories of water resources and the development of the American West – including the history of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s the real story behind Chinatown.
Green Metropolis – David Owen (2009)
Makes the case that urban environments are ‘green’ and sustainable, despite appearances that defy our ideas of what is ‘natural.’ The arguments in favor of density are good, but Owen’s use of height-capped DC, with its broad avenues as a foil for New York’s green density is a weak spot. Why not use suburbia instead? DC is dense and urban and not the real villain.