The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Understanding Urbanity: 7 Must-Read Books About Cities

“Cities are the crucible of civilization,” Geoffrey West proclaimed in his recent TED talk. Cities are where most of humanity’s creative and intellectual ideation, communication, and innovation takes place, so understanding cities is vital to understanding our civilization. To help do that, here is an omnibus of seven fantastic books exploring the complex and faceted nature, function, history, and future of urbanity’s precious living organism, from design to sociology to economics and beyond.


Jane Jacobs is easily history’s most important writer in urban planning. Her massively influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, originally published in 1961, is a book so central to the last half-century of urbanism that it’s almost an embarrassment to mention it in any kind of introductory context. Rather than a hapless attack on then-new planning policies and their negative impact on inner-city communities, Jacobs offers an intelligent, constructive critique that proposes new principles for planning and rebuilding smart, functional cities, debunking the widely held belief that if only we had enough money, we’d wipe out the slums, reverse urban decay, anchor the wandering tax money of the middle class, and even solve the traffic problem — a belief, mind you, that has metastasized all more dangerously in contemporary culture, some half a century later.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

In addition to the meat of the book, buried in its first pages is Jacobs’ curious aside about illustration, alluding to the creative medium’s role as a sensemaking mechanism for the world:

The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might also listen, linger and think about what you see.


Thirty-six million people inhabit the greater Tokyo area, the world’s most productive city, and nearly 70% of the U.S. population live in 3% of the country’s land area, yet we do so with the constant civic guilt, perpetuated by the media, about the wasteful, unhealthy, crime-ridden, ecologically unreasonable ways of city life. In Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, pioneering urban economist Edward Glaeser debunks a number of popular myths about the ills of cities to reveal, through examples past and present, how and why cities can in fact be a model for optimal well-being, both human and of the environment. (Did you know that urbanites use 40% less energy than their suburban counterparts, and both cancer and heart disease are significantly lower in New York City than the American national average?)

The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to these truths and dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”


Originally published in 1952, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by prolific author Lewis Mumford traces the evolution of the urban form throughout human civilization, from the earliest tribal habitats to the towns of the Middle Ages to the vintage-modern commerce hubs of the 1950s. From keenly analyzing the past to accurately assessing the future, Mumford’s insights half a century ago presaged some of the most pressing conversation about cities occupying today’s urbanists, scholars, and civic leaders.

By building up sub-centers, based on pedestrian circulation, within the metropolitan region, a good part of urban transportation difficulties could have been obviated. To make the necessary journeys about the metropolis swift and efficient the number of unnecessary journeys–and the amount of their unnecessary length–must be decreased. Only by bringing work and home closer together can this be achieved.

But beneath his astute observations of all the ways in which we could (and did) screw up our cities lies an undercurrent of breathless optimism about our capacity for wisdom, betterment, and moral imagination:

But happily life has one predictable attribute: it is full of surprises. At the last moment–and our generation may in fact be close to the last moment–the purposes and projects that will redeem our present aimless dynamism may gain the upper hand. When that happens, obstacles that now seem insuperable will melt away; and the vast sums of money and energy, the massive efforts of science and technics, which now go into the building of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and a hundred other cunning devices directly or indirectly attached to dehumanized and demoralized goals, will be released for the recultivation of the earth and the rebuilding of cities: above all, for the replenishment of the human personality. If once the sterile dreams and sadistic nightmares that obsess the ruling elite are banished, there will be such a release of human vitality as will make the Renascence seem almost a stillbirth.


For much of human civilization, cities — the places where people gather around and exchange money, goods, and ideas — have been defined by transportation hubs, from ports to railway stations. In Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, academic researcher and urban adviser John Kasarda and journalist Greg Lindsay examine today’s most important transit hub, the airport, as an epicenter of tomorrow’s civilization in the shape of the “aerotropolis” — a combination of enormous airport, planned metropolis, and commerce cluster. Both radical and practical, the aerotropolis lives at the intersection of urbanism, civic engineering, sociology, international relations, economics, cartography, and design to offer a compelling vision for our emergent urban future.

The aerotropolis is the urban incarnation of [the] physical Internet; the primacy of air transport makes airports and their hinterlands the places to see how it functions — and to observe the consequences. The three rules of real estate have changed from location, location, location to accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. There’s a new metric. It’s no longer space; it’s time and cost. And if you look closely at the aerotropolis, what appears to be sprawl is slowly evolving into a system of reducing both. It’s here where we can see how globalization will reshape our cities, lives, and culture.

Amazon has an excellent Q&A with Lindsay.


Richard Florida, apart from being one of the most continuously stimulating people to follow on Twitter and a fellow contributor to The Atlantic, is also one of the most insightful people writing and thinking about cities today. In Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, he examines the macro elements of cities, from economy to transportation, through the micro lens of personal happiness. (Which, in fact, makes the book a fine addition to this reading list of essential books on happiness.) Florida blends heavy-duty statistics and theory with passionately argued ideas and fascinating maps to expose the power of place in its richest, most multidimensional form, revealing the intricate interplay between our cities, our personalities, and our very sense of self and well-being.

The so-called death of place is hardly a new story. First the railroad revolutionized trade and transport like never before. Then the telephone made everyone feel connected and closer. The automobile was invented, then the airplane, and then the World Wide Web — perhaps the quintessential product of a globalized world. All of these technologies have carried the promise of a boundless world. They would free us from geography, allowing us to move out of crowded cities and into lives of our own bucolic choosing. Forget the past, when cities and civilizations were confined to fertile soil, natural ports, or raw materials. In today’s high-tech world, we are free to live wherever we want. Place, according to this increasingly popular view, is irrelevant.

It’s a compelling notion, but it’s wrong. Today’s key economic factors — talent, innovation, and creativity — are not distributed evenly across the global economy. They concentrate in specific locations.

Ultimately, Who’s Your City?, offers an intelligent blueprint for balancing the trade-offs of place and personality to find, or learn to enjoy, the city and community best tailored to your life, your responsibilities, and your aspirations.


The Zinester’s Guide to NYC is no ordinary city guide. In the age of crowdsourcing and digital everything, it’s a delightfully analog, painstakingly curated tour of all the things that make the Big Apple a cross-cultural icon. From Brooklyn’s bookstores to the midday madness of Midtown to the peculiar cultures of different neighborhoods, ZG2NYC is a remarkable achievement of urban curiosity, beautifully illustrated with original artwork, spanning everything from architecture to art to culinary curiosity and beyond. In the eloquently laconic words of Stephen Colbert’s review, “it kicks ass.”

For sure, use your device to double check addresses and hours, but then stash it, man! Your eyes and ears and nose remain excellent portals for receiving, interpreting, and storing information. I get that it could be fun to review your email on the subway, but if you’re always doing that, you are never going to sketch the person seated across from you. Ten years from now, which will prove the better key to this long forgotten day? A deleted digital message (received on a no doubt archaic device) or an inexpert but keenly observed rendering born of being wholly present in the exterior word?

Don’t miss this offbeat interview with Halliday, accompanied by more images from the book.


While the work of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford may have shaped generations of thinking about cities, much has changed since their ideas were coined half a century ago as our technology, economic mechanisms, design processes, and political priorities have evolved. In Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, University of Pennsylvania urbanism professor and Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski explores what these changes mean for envisioning the optimal city of tomorrow. Rybczynski, who 16 years ago started teaching design and development to MBAs and real estate majors at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, summarizes what he has learned about city planning and urban development through data-driven insights about the present and future of cities at the intersection of sociology, design, and behavioral economics, as well as fascinating urban innovation projects from around the world that challenge the definition of a city in an era of changing human demands and resource availability.

From Mumford to Jacobs, from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright, from public parks to high-tech skyscrapers, from Buffalo to Boston, Rybczynski spans an incredible spectrum of material to explain why we behave the way we behave, live the way we live, and choose what we choose — and, more importantly, how these seminal ideas about cities can be built upon to shape the 21st-century city, with all its liveliness, heterogeneity, and multifunctionality.

Is a city the result of design intentions, or of market forces, or a bit of both? These are the questions I explore in this book.

Intelligent and highly readable, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities embodies the Brain Pickings ethos of cross-disciplinary curiosity, of lateral connections, of knowing and understanding the thinking of the past in order to envision and frame the ideas of the future.

Published August 22, 2011




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