Learn About Urban Planning

Have you ever traveled somewhere and thought to yourself: "hmm, these streets don't make any sense," or "why do all the buildings have a certain 'feel' to them?" Well, with the use of these books hopefully you won't have to wonder any longer. This month I have selected nine books all about urban planning. It is my hope that these books help to answer any and all pressing questions you have about the spaces that we live in. Likewise, my hope is that these books help to demonstrate that while our understandings of what cities look and feel like seem very fixed and permanent, the power to positively influence change in our communities is possible. Whether it is through non-profit organizations, governments, businesses, individuals, or a combination of all four, these books work to educate on important topics, as well as (hopefully) inspire readers to recognize the power that they have to enact change in their communities. 


Streets are so ubiquitous to American life that we hardly even notice they’re there. Sure, most of us drive on them every day, but I (and I’m sure many of you reading this post) have seldom given a second thought about the importance they play in our day to day lives, not to mention their role in facilitating everything from entertainment, to commerce, to leisure. That is, until things go wrong. Once there are road closures and traffic backups, streets are the first thing on everyone’s mind. Perhaps nowhere in the United States is this truer than in New York City. In a city comprised of over 6,000 miles of streets, when something goes wrong with the streets, things don’t just go wrong, they go wrong. Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan might know this better than anyone else. In Street Fight, Sadik-Khan recounts her time as Transportation Commissioner and offers fascinating insights on how small (and cheap!) improvements made to streets can reap huge benefits for traffic, business, safety, and happiness. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the interplay that happens within cities and towns as a result of how roads and streets are conceptualized.

Makeshift Metropolis

To better understand why cities look the way they do now, Witold Rybczynski walks through the prevailing theories in urban planning and their history. By looking to the past, Rybczynski explains how the amalgamation of different urban planning schools of thought have led to the creation patchwork cities (hence the title), at times leading to the frustration of those who live there. In doing so, Rybczynski explains that the job of city managers today is to reconcile the differences between economically-minded real estate developers and the idealism of architects and urban planners. Unfortunately, as Rybczynski notes, often the inhabitants of the city get caught in the crossfire between the wants of real estate developers and the wants of architects and urban planners. Rybczynski combines all of this information to paint a picture of where cities came from and the direction that they are heading, while also offering some thought-provoking alternatives.

The Color of Law

In The Color of Law, Economic Policy Institute research fellow Richard Rothstein presents the argument that metropolitan areas within the United States were (and continue to be) segregated as a result of racially explicit government policies rather than personal prejudice and societal discrimination. In doing so, Rothstein argues that the segregation of cities was de jure rather than de facto. If you’re like me and have to quickly Google these words as a refresher for what they mean, allow me to summarize: de jure means that something is sanctioned by law (i.e., government policies, bank policies, city ordinances), while de facto exists in fact, but is not sanctioned by law (i.e., personal prejudices, bias, etc.). Rothstein argues that this de jure segregation of cities in the past has directly contributed to the makeup of cities currently.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

It doesn’t take much perusing through the other books on this list to recognize the influence that The Death and Life of Great American Cities had (and continues to have) on the subject of urban planning. In this book, Jacobs splits city-dwellers up into two categories, foot people and car people. Foot people value their ability to easily navigate cities by foot, and do so often. Car people on the other hand, value the use of their cars and would prefer to navigate the world from behind a steering wheel. Within this book, Jacob argues that many of the actions taken by city planners are taken to benefit car people, typically at the expense of foot people, something Jacobs refers to as anticity planning. The crux of Jacobs’ argument is that efforts taken by city planners to “revitalize” parts of the city often fail to recognize the needs of foot people and in doing so harm the city more than help. Throughout the book Jacobs provides plenty of evidence to back up her claims. The Death and Life of Great American Cities closes with Jacobs providing a multitude of different alternatives to the car-heavy way that cities are conceptualized. While written in the 1950s, The Death and Life of Great American Cities continues to be as current today as when it was released, perhaps even more so.

Why Cities Look the Way They Do

Have you ever stood in a city and just looked around and the environment you found yourself in? Richard Williams, author of Why Cities Look the Way They Do, really thinks you should. Williams believes that by taking a hard look at cities and the different components that make them up, we can gain a deep understanding of the process that goes into designing cities. For example, have you ever wondered why 7th Street runs east-to-west, 8th Street runs west-to-east and east-to-west (at least until you get to Lincoln Avenue, at which case it only runs east-to-west), and 9th Street runs west-to-east? Well, I unfortunately don’t have an answer for you, but Williams explains that by examining our surroundings and asking these types of questions, we can not only gain a better understanding of where we live, but also develop better ways to design cities in the future.

Dream Cities

To Wade Graham, cities represent a number of things. As he explains in Dream Cities, cities can represent our collective ethos, our dreams, our fears, and our values. Cities can also be living histories of how previous generations felt about these things, weaving a complex tapestry of often-time conflicting ideals embodied in our cityscapes. Because city design is partially based on how planners and architects interpret these various concepts, these interpretations change with the times. Recognizing this, Dream Cities recounts the history of seven different urban planning schools of thought and examines their impact on the modern city. By interpreting the past, Graham believes that we can understand the present condition of cities and further build off of past experiments in urban planning to build something better.  

The Trouble With City Planning

In The Trouble with City Planning, Kristina Ford, former New Orleans director of planning from 1992 to 2000, reflects on what she saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by providing thoughtful assessments on how recovery was handled, both locally and federally. In doing so, Ford arrives at six questions which act as the driving force of The Trouble with City Planning. These six questions revolve around the shortcomings that she witnessed during the Bring Back New Orleans Commission’s rebuilding effort. These questions are: why has city planning ignored vulnerable citizens? Why does city planning thwart economic development? Why hasn’t city planning saved natural environments? Why don’t city leaders take the advice of city planners? Why is city planning even necessary? And what good does city planning offer? While these questions are asked in relation to New Orleans, Ford makes it clear that they could be asked by any community in the country. While much more technical than some of the other books in this list, the questions and analyses that are posed by Ford offer thought-provoking things to consider for anyone interested in city planning.

Where We Want to Live

When it comes to revitalizing cities, Ryan Gravel, author of Where We Want to Live, firmly believes that the way this gets accomplished is by creating infrastructure that fulfill the wants and needs of the city’s population. Similar to the arguments made by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Gravel believes that the needs of the citizens are often ignored when it comes to city revitalization projects, instead these projects favor focusing on high-visibility changes, such as blight clearing and the construction of dazzling new buildings. Drawing on his experience with the Atlanta Beltline Project, Gravel argues that real revitalization instead comes from the bottom-up, as citizens, nonprofits, and businesses work in conjunction to advocate for what the population really needs. Gravel argues that by doing this, members of the community are able to practice their civic-duty and inspire the change that the community really needs, rather than focusing on big-ticket vanity projects. Where We Want to Live reads both as a history of the Atlanta Beltline, as well as a how-to guide for anyone interested in inspiring change in their community.

Design and Landscape for People

While some of the other books in this list are concerned with top-down solutions to some of the problems that communities face, Design and Landscape for People is much more interested in advocating for simple solutions that involve the community’s citizens. To highlight the impact that community members can have on the design and landscape of their environment, authors Clare Cumberlidge and Lucy Musgrave examine over twenty simple solutions that have been created by community members to tackle difficult problems that their community faces. These projects are broken down into five different categories: utility, citizenship, rural, identity, and urban. This book contains some excellent examples of creative problem-solving and is sure to intrigue and inspire.