Urban Planning (or Placemaking)

What should we call the design, construction, and study of the built environment? “Geography” is too broad. “Regional planning” sounds like a job reserved for bureaucracies. “Urban planning”—the usual catchall term—is a holdover from the profession’s early years, when industrial blight was one of America’s biggest domestic problems. Today we are worrying about our cities for different reasons, and our suburbs and open spaces are demanding equal concern. How do we retrofit our aging suburbs? Can design foster stronger communities? What does sustainable development really mean? These questions all fall under the subject of urban planning. So what’s a better term? Perhaps “placemaking” best fits the bill. The following books are all in some way about placemaking in America, past and present. They are about cities, suburbs, and neighborhoods: how we build them, how we can change them, and how we can make them better. Some of these books were written by urban planners with other experts in mind. Still, they should all be accessible and interesting to any curious generalist.

The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx

There’s a lot to take from Marx’s classic American Studies text, but his chief concern is with literature and the role of place. Marx argues that American literature, and the American experience writ large, has been defined by a “pastoral ideal”—in other words, our belief that between wilderness and civilized society some middle landscape exists. The “machine” Marx is talking about is the industrial revolution, but it could just as easily stand for sprawl. In this light, the rise of the modern suburb was just another iteration of a shopworn American dream.

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck

Founded in the early ’90s, New Urbanism is still the trendiest urban-planning philosophy in America, and this book is its opening salvo. In a nutshell, New Urbanism rejects traditional zoning plans like subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, and highways in favor of neighborhood-based, pedestrian-friendly design. Celebration, FL, the Disney venture, is perhaps the most famous example of New Urbanism, but the model has been imitated, and, as some experts argue, bastardized nationwide. Written by three of the philosophy’s founding members, Suburban Nation reads like a persuasive courtroom argument, peppered with damning evidence of how conventional planning got everything wrong. Is New Urbanism the solution, as the authors claim? The jury is still out.

How Cities Work by Alex Marshall

A useful companion to Suburban Nation, How Cities Work lauds the basic aims of New Urbanism while taking its acolytes to task for producing what Marshall calls little more than “a stylistic revolution.” Marshall is a journalist, not a planner, but his book offers plenty of expert opinions alongside his own thorough research and observations. Published in 2000, the book is also remarkably prescient. Marshall foretells the current “back-to-the-city” phenomenon by describing how suburbs and cities have slowly reversed roles. “The city now represents order, stability, community, and the human scale,” he writes, while the suburbs have become deserts: vast, unfriendly, and seemingly empty.

Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler

This book changed my life when I first read it in college. Kunstler’s arguments can seem obvious now, but the book was a bellwether when it was published in 1993. The urban-planning equivalent of Bobos in Paradise, it made a lot of people laugh at themselves while also internalizing a deep sense of dread. Kunstler laments the disappearance of authentic places in America while vilifying the usual suspects: the auto industry, Disneyworld, those soulless modernists, those soulless postmodernists. His attention may be scattered at times, but his dissections of towns like Saratoga Springs and Atlantic City make his points undeniably clear. The Geography of Nowhere is Kunstler at his best: outraged, sarcastic, and perfectly tuned to the ironic and the absurd.

Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash

Often called the Book of Genesis for environmentalists, Wilderness and the American Mind is also a fascinating read from a planners’ perspective. Wilderness is at the core of American identity, Nash argues, and he describes how that identity evolved over time: from colonial fear to pioneering exploitation to the preservation movement and “windshield tourism.” We cling to the idea of wilderness because it’s so deeply rooted in our shared identity, Nash argues. But, as evidenced by the national parks movement, the modern impulse has generally been to put a box around nature to ease our guilty minds. Meanwhile, our suburbs continue to sprawl. Nash’s book is a reminder that every conversation about what and where we build is implicitly a conversation about the natural world.

My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 by Becky Nicolaides

Nicolaides’s book is essentially a neighborhood history. Her subject may be limited to one seven-mile stretch of L.A., but the scope of her inquiry is wide, encompassing urban and suburban development, politics, labor history, and social networks during a period of massive upheaval in L.A. and across America. In uncovering the complexities of race and class in South Gate, Nicolaides challenges the notion that 1950s suburbia was a land of whites voting for Republicans. “Suburbs did not shape people into bland conformists,” she writes. “Rather, people were agents in creating their own lifestyles.” Nicolaides is a careful, compassionate historian; the families and individuals she follows come to feel like characters in an impeccably researched novel. Still, scrappy, blue-collar South Gate is the real star.

The Art of City-Making by Charles Landry

Landry takes a refreshingly holistic approach to urban planning and design in this follow-up to his first book, The Creative City. More philosophical than prescriptive, this book argues that urban planning is not a science but an artistic and ethical concern. Landry has a tendency to lapse into musings about the creative potential of cities, but his digressions are so interesting that you won’t care. And Landry’s point that creative cities and “creative industries” do not necessarily go together feels especially relevant as cities like San Francisco grapple with an identity crisis brought on by the tech industry.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

No urban-planning list is complete without Jane Jacobs, the godmother of modern urban planning, whose seminal text still reads like a voice of reason over so much silly chatter. Writing in 1961, Jacobs was reacting to the urban-planning orthodoxy of the time, which she blames for the vacant downtowns, the failed housing projects, and the general “sacking” of cities that went on throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Jacobs’s writing is full of personality and humor, and her outrage is palpable. “This book is an attack,” she states in the opening lines. It’s true, but, reading Jacobs now, one feels something more like nostalgia for the New York Jacobs knew, a city where kids played in the Greenwich Village streets and you left your keys at the corner deli when you went out of town.

Amanda Shapiro is a freelance writer living in North Carolina and a contributor to the New Inquiry.