Best books about any/all aspects of modern cities
January 17, 2019 10:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm a huge fan of cities, but I just realized that I know very little about them. What are the best books/longform articles about cities? Histories, cultural, technical, etc.

I'm interested in reading about cities and urbanism. My base of knowledge is "read the first chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities a few years ago," so I'm essentially a novice.

I'm especially interested in content about:
  • Big cities/metropolitan areas: Tokyo, Shanghai, NYC, London, etc. The unique challenges they are facing in the 21st century.
  • The cultures of cities, both specific ones and in general.
  • Unique cities: e.g. city-states like Singapore, West Berlin.
  • Cities in conflict: Belfast during the Troubles, Sarajevo under siege.
  • Stuff about Los Angeles and SoCal, my home base.
  • Technical/engineering underpinnings: how the various systems (skyscrapers, housing, sewers, foodways) that make up a city work.
  • Urban planning: in practice, how are cities designed?
  • The future of cities: explorations of how cities will work in the future. Arcologies, megastructures, etc.
  • Maybe even some cultural theorist stuff, like Paul Virilio? Only if it's not too crazy.
Things I'm not really interested in:
  • Fiction about cities. Definitely a cool topic, but right now I want to read more about true things that have happened.
  • Historical cities. I don't mind if a modern city has a vast history behind it, and wouldn't mind reading about it, but I'm not really interested in Babylon, Antiquity-era Rome or other now-defunct conurbations... yet.
What are your suggestions?
posted by miltthetank to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I'd highly recommend Cool Gray City of Love. It will give you a lot of history and context on a city that's so much better than anything further south in the state. ;)
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:57 AM on January 17

Hands down: start with Power Broker by Robert Caro.

Then maybe go back and finish The Life and Death of Great American Cities.

For Los Angeles, see this question.
posted by caek at 11:02 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]

William H. Whyte's City: Rediscovering the Centre is accessible, fascinating, and important; it was originally published in 1988 but reissued about 10 years ago.

For sixteen years William Whyte walked the streets of New York and other major cities. With a group of young observers, camera and notebook in hand, he conducted pioneering studies of street life, pedestrian behavior, and city dynamics. City: Rediscovering the Center is the result of that research, a humane, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious about the urban environment but seemingly invisible to those responsible for planning it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:16 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]

William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.
posted by burden at 11:29 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]

The guardian had a good series on cities. I personally enjoy reading about the idea of planned utopias so particularly liked their article on Milton Keynes.
posted by JonB at 11:30 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]

Hope, Human and Wild by Bill McKibben has a very interesting section on Curitiba, Brazil (pop. over 1-1/2 million). IIRC, it discusses the introduction of BRT, bus rapid transit, and a citizen operated waste collection system, by Mayor Jaime Lerner, and how he got around the resistance of the rest of the city government in order make these changes.
posted by Botanizer at 11:32 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]

Cities in conflict: Jerry White's Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War. Telegraph review, Guardian review.
posted by paduasoy at 11:34 AM on January 17

The two best books about New York, IMO, are The Power Broker (mentioned above) and Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. The latter is a collection of the author's pieces for The New Yorker; it is partly fiction, but mostly literary non-fiction.

I recall reading a very good biography of Richard Daley some years ago, but the name escapes me...
posted by breakin' the law at 11:37 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]

Could the Richard Daley (Past Chicago mayor) bio be either American Pharoah by Taylor and Cohen, or Boss by Mike Royko?
(Boss is a great book!)
posted by bookmammal at 11:45 AM on January 17

City of Quartz by Mike Davis is a little old, but it's about LA.

Some of my favorites:

Low Life by Luc Sante
The Flaneur by Edmund White
Living Downtown by Paul Groth
Rebecca Solnit did 3 gorgeous atlases.

Invisible Cities - Italo Calivno
posted by Duffington at 12:10 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]

Human Transit is a good book about the technical constraints and tradeoffs in any public transit system (technically, this is not restricted to cities, but as a practical matter...).

The Color of Law is a book everyone should read, about how de jure (not just de facto) discrimination built segregation, particularly in urban areas, in the twentieth century.
posted by praemunire at 12:10 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]

I have really enjoyed Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson but would be hard pressed to describe it. AV Club review.
posted by rodlymight at 12:12 PM on January 17

You have my permission not to start with The Power Broker, which is incredible and also a hundred thousand pages long.

James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere is a recent classic critiquing suburbia (and therefore discussing cities as alternatives).

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan (former NYC Dept of Transportation head) describes NYC's street design renaissance under Michael Bloomberg (in which my nonprofit played a role!)

The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher is on my to-read list, about "everything you ever wanted to know about what makes New York City run."
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:16 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]

I'd explore Colin Marshall's Notebook on Cities and Culture - he has written a lot for the Guardian series on cities linked above and ran a series of podcast seasons focused on particular cities. He has reading guides of essays, interviews and books for several large cities.
posted by AnnaRat at 12:17 PM on January 17

If blogs are of any interest, and are also great.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:18 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]

A few more options that pop into mind:

James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son includes several essays touching on Harlem life. The whole volume will amply repay your attention.

Joseph Roth's What I Saw is a collection of short-form pieces primarily about Berlin during and shortly after the Weimar Republic. An extremely bitter and clever writer.

This book is a bit older now, so I imagine the historiography has moved on somewhat, but Gary Nash's The Urban Crucible is a study of how urbanization in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia contributed to the American Revolution. Another older study in the same vein is Valerie Pearl's London and the outbreak of the Puritan Revolution. Again, be aware that some of the historical arguments will be outdated. (These are grown-up history books rather than popular history, but not particularly inaccessible, in my opinion.)

For less depressing fare, Henry James's English Hours has some nice gauzy observations on the London of his day (second half of C19) and Italian Hours covers many Italian cities, although in the latter in particular he tends to focus on culture over street life.
posted by praemunire at 12:21 PM on January 17

Oh, and Jeremiah Moss's recent Vanishing New York, a helpful counterpoint to any book espousing the opinion that Bloomberg was a net positive for NYC street life.
posted by praemunire at 12:25 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]

I'm seconding City of Quartz.

I found Jeff Speck's "Walkable City Rules" to be entertaining and informative. It is grounded in lots of real life examples.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:27 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]

Tenements, Towers, and Trash is an illustrated book about this history and architecture of New York. Julia Wertz is hilarious and I love her drawings of New York past and present.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 12:51 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]

Where We Want to Live by Ryan Gravel, about modern pedestrian-oriented infrastructure and revitalization.
posted by Violet Hour at 2:59 PM on January 17

Could the Richard Daley (Past Chicago mayor) bio be either American Pharoah by Taylor and Cohen, or Boss by Mike Royko?

It was the former (I think)!

The guy who wrote Human Transit also writes an excellent blog by the same name. (I'm pretty sure the book mostly started as blog posts.) You may also enjoy Pedestrian Observations, which likewise has a more specific - and often technical - focus on transit but also contains some interesting posts about cities generally.
posted by breakin' the law at 3:45 PM on January 17

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta is part memoir and part exploration of the city. Beautiful writing. And, gets you over to that side of the world as well. Nthing City of Quartz. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky if you want food with your NYC.
posted by Gotanda at 5:57 PM on January 17

Seeing Like a State has great sections on how states try to make cities legible, at the expense of the people live there, often.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 7:06 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]

I loved Common Ground on Boston school deseg.

You might like O Albany! It's a good for those interested in machine politics. (My dad and his father were in the county machine.)

And speaking of, there's Albany's O'Connell Machine. It's harder to find; I got mine on eBay.
posted by jgirl at 9:54 AM on January 18

I think you might enjoy 'A Burglar's Guide to the City' (2016) by Geoff Manaugh (Guardian review here). It was a New York Times-bestseller for two months, and was optioned for television by CBS Studios. It's about the relationship between crime and architecture and city-planning.

Manaugh launched BLDGBLOG which explores 'Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation, Landscape Futures', and his work's shown up in all sorts of interesting places (previously and previouslier), helping to investigate the way that places that people live and work and crime can get under our skin.
posted by Joeruckus at 2:42 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design is a fascinating, thoroughly researched discussion about the design, architecture, and infrastructure of modern cities and how these factors influence the well-being of their citizens. It's written from an American perspective but also compares cities from all around the world.
posted by datarose at 8:43 AM on January 19 [1 favorite]

« Older Replacement for iOS Equanimity Meditation app   |   Balsam/fir candle that actually smells like a tree... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments