How cities are made
December 22, 2006 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn the basics about urban planning, road planning, and how buildings are put together. Everything from skyscrapers to single family houses. I always wonder about the reasons roads are built where they are given the terrain. I'm always staring at high rises under construction to figure out what principles and methods go into their construction. My ultimate goal would be to create a program for generating random terrain/roads/towns/cities etc..
posted by parallax7d to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Great! Unfortunately, most places I know do not have zoning commitees who do a good job of this sort of thing. A good place to start learning about the fundamental principles of organizing human spaces like cities and houses is a book called "A Pattern Language," pricy but easy to find and very interesting even for a layman. Second time it's been recommended here in as many days.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:32 PM on December 22, 2006

Check out Planetizen, and their top books list. (My two cents on the roads question: A lot of roads are where they are for historical reasons. Some of the interstate highways follow routes that Native Americans were using before Europeans got here.)
posted by salvia at 8:41 PM on December 22, 2006

On a more light-hearted note, you might want to try playing games such as the Sim City series; as I have found that they have given me a new-found appreciation for a well-planned city. As well, I have a more discerning eye towards existing and potential urban planning problems than I ever did before...
posted by Jade Dragon at 8:47 PM on December 22, 2006

The American Planning Association (some parts are members only but not all}.

Look into Kevin Lynch.

These days, rights of way for major roads can be just as much about politics and ownership as terrain or geography or even demographics.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:27 PM on December 22, 2006

Sim City is great for this, and maybe the books of Dave Macaulay: City and Underground.
posted by migurski at 11:36 PM on December 22, 2006

There are really three topics here (or more).

I want to learn the basics about urban planning, road planning, and how buildings are put together. Everything from skyscrapers to single family houses.

I think this is exactly not how functional cities come to be. Historical reasons is a much better explanation.

Or, maybe a less extremist position is appropriate.. There are aspects that arise unplanned from the interaction of people with their environment (the historical reasons), and there are aspects that are created by design (the urban planning). I suspect that most source material about planning will be unhelpful when it comes to understanding the natural/historical/unconscious aspects of city formation.

So, that is two topics. The third being the technical details of the structures and systems.
posted by Chuckles at 3:21 AM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

You might want to take a look at the work of the late Jane Jacobs, who devoted most of her life to studying cities, and how they work and don't work.

She's most well-known for her ground-breaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is a great read. But I enjoy all of her insightful writing. Her last book, Dark Age Ahead, is a sobering appraisal of the current state of affairs in most modern American cities.
posted by trip and a half at 5:43 AM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Another good book is Edge City by Joel Garreau. This focuses on suburbs, and discusses a lot of the rules of thumb that developers live by.
posted by adamrice at 6:34 AM on December 23, 2006

I suspect that most source material about planning will be unhelpful when it comes to understanding the natural/historical/unconscious aspects of city formation.

I don't think that's necessarily true. In my grad planning school classes, we spent way too much time talking about that sort of social theory and not nearly enough time talking about how to actually do things today!

But it's certainly true that questions of how a building/road is constructed are not planning questions.

Another book worth checking out is Planning and Urban Design Standards. And yes, I'm a contributer but it's still a good resource for how lots of stuff gets (should get) done.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:53 AM on December 23, 2006

Re: the program, here's a paper from some people who have done some interesting, l-system based work.
posted by signal at 7:56 AM on December 23, 2006

Read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York for a good case study in how urban planning can go terribly, dreadfully wrong.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:36 AM on December 23, 2006

Will Wright, author of Sim City and others, frequently publishes a bibliography with his games (I know the Sims came with one). Kottke has some of them.
posted by plinth at 11:22 AM on December 23, 2006

These books might make for interesting reading on the topic of urban panning:

The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape

Omsted is known as a landscape architect (most notably of Central Park in NYC), but he also designed some cities, of which Chicago suburb Riverside, Illinois is an example.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:29 AM on December 23, 2006

The Jane Jacobs recommendation is right on.

Where are you located? There are a few universities around the country with strong land-use planning programs, and if you're near one of them a trip to the college bookstore might help out.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:52 AM on December 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

As mentioned above already, if you're looking for your cities to actually resemble metropolitan cities of today, a strict emphasis on current urban planning techniques will get you nowhere. Jane Jacobs, while very insightful on the topics of what our cities should look like, is probably not going to be as helpful on the topic of how our cities developed—The Death and Life of Great American Cities is more a prescription than a history.

Though it doesn't really cover the development of urban centres so much, I would recommend Building Suburbia by Dolores Hayden. It's a well-researched history of suburban development, from the very first street expansions from urban areas to the development of streetcar suburbs, and finally to developer-created, highway-reliant housing developments.
posted by chrominance at 5:56 PM on December 23, 2006

When roads are built from scatch as a city develops it is for different reasons than when new roads are added when a city is already developed. For a new city, an urban road is built generally along straight lines where the terrain is flat. Highways are usually built so that the cuts and fills from a varied terrain match. They donĀ“t want to haul in or out very much material as that can get expensive for a large project.

Many times roads are built for economic purposes to improve an area for comercial purposes. Sometimes it is plain pork politics. There are so many varied reasons it is difficult to try and code into an easy scenario.
posted by JJ86 at 1:09 AM on December 24, 2006

i'd recommend playing sim city. can learn a lot from that game!
posted by kneelconqueso at 8:53 PM on December 24, 2006

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