What Makes a Good City? [ Urban Planning Deep Dive Part One]

January 13, 2020 History, non-fiction, Sociology, Uncategorized 1 ★★★★

I’ve been talking about reading more on a single topic since at least last January. Other than beginning last year with my focus on books about Silicon Valley though, this is the first time I’ve intentionally invested some time in reading on one topic. So far, it’s been a great experience. The first three books have connected to and re-enforced one another well, without feeling redundant. I think this is going to make it more likely that I’ll remember what I’ve read. It’s also just been fun, since this is a topic I’m finding as interesting as I hoped!

What Makes a Good City? [ Urban Planning Deep Dive Part One]Title: Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Author: Charles Montgomery

Of the three books I’ll mention in this post, this is the one that felt most meant for me. The intersection of urban design with the science of happiness (another interest of mine!) was fascinating. The combination yielded a lot of information that an individual home owner could use to pick a place to live. For example, the author suggests an ideal front yard depth (backed by research, I think), one that would allow you to interact with your neighbors or not as you chose. Perhaps because this was the first book I read, it was also the book that most changed the way I think about the world. A lot of the things that can make people happy in urban design made sense once I heard them, but surprised me anyway. The author also effectively challenged notions we now take for granted, like the idea that the primary use of streets is for cars, rather than for people. A good mix of research and anecdotes made this an enjoyable, helpful, informative read.

What Makes a Good City? [ Urban Planning Deep Dive Part One]Title: The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Author: Jane Jacobs

I chose to read this classic of urban planning, published in the 1950’s, because Rachel at Never Enough Novels pointed me to Modern Mrs. Darcy’s list of favorite urban planning books. (Actually, all of these books are on that list, but this is the one the list made me feel I just had to read). This book was a gem. It had a few outdated ideas about gender roles, but was pretty progressive on race and otherwise surprisingly timely (perhaps an unfortunate indication of how far we’ve not come). Both of the other books I read cited this book frequently. The author includes a ton of information in over 500+ pages, but distilled her main requirements for a vibrant city down to a manageable four – short blocks, a mix of old and new buildings, high population density, and mixed primary building uses. She didn’t cite many (any?) research to back up her claims, but they were logical, persuasive, and felt true to my experience. I was quite impressed by her prescience as I noted how well the solutions she intuited from anecdotal data match the research shared in the other two books on this list. Her depictions of bustling city life were delightful and I’d recommend it as a starting place if you’re at all interested in how we should build cities.

What Makes a Good City? [ Urban Planning Deep Dive Part One]Title: Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time
Author: Jeff Speck

This was a helpful follow-up to the previous two books. All three place a lot of importance on mixed use, walkable areas. As you can tell from the title of this book, it focuses in specifically on the idea of walkability. It was particularly well organized and seemed designed to help people who are trying to shape their city. The author identifies 10 specific steps to take to make a more walkable city. Each step is given a succinct, easily digested chapter. These chapters all take you through why a step is valuable; the barriers to implementation; and some solutions. This is definitely the book out of these three I’d most recommend as a practical guide. I also enjoyed reading it after the previous two books, because it became clear to me while reading this that all three authors were promoting essentially the same thing. Even 60 years after publication, Jane Jacobs’ list of four requirements pretty well sums up the main takeaways of this school of thought. Nevertheless, the two newer books backed her ideas with data and additional anecdotes that I truly enjoyed. This book covers much of the same ground as Jacobs and could be a more approachable starting place if you find her longer book a bit daunting.

One Response to “What Makes a Good City? [ Urban Planning Deep Dive Part One]”

  1. #NonficNov: Your Year in Nonfiction - Doing Dewey

    […] kicked off my year with an intentional deep dive into the topic of urban planning (reviews part 1, part 2, and part 3). I’ve also read more nature writing and especially books on birds than I […]

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