By Dom Nozzi, AICP
In no particular order, here are the ten best, most influential urban design books that I have ever read. Each of these books changed the course of my life and how I view city planning and the world at large. I would strongly recommend that each of these ten books be required reading for every local government elected official, planner and engineer in your community.
The High Cost of Free Parking.
By Donald Shoup (2005). My book, “Road to Ruin,” claims the key to quality communities is driven by how we build our roads. But in this groundbreaking work, the best planning book I’ve ever read in my 20 years as a city planner, Shoup persuasively shows that the excessive parking required throughout the nation is the primary factor for how our communities form, and plays a powerful role in how we travel. The parking we require new development to provide is scientifically unsound, economically irrational, counter to our community objectives, and thereby catastrophic for our cities and our quality of life. Shoup makes the overwhelming, disturbing case that how we manage our parking is the lynchpin to the future of our cities. Shoup’s book is exceptionally readable, witty and insightful. The book is thin with regard to urban design concepts, but as Shoup effectively points out, without the proper management of parking, quality urban design is not possible.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
By Jane Jacobs (1961). This book is universally and appropriately considered a classic in urban design, and is a pioneer in accurately describing what is necessary for a healthy city. Many of the timeless concepts used in urban design first gained prominence as a result of this book. It motivated (and continues to motivate) a great many professionals to become urbanists. As the author says, “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.”
Cities and Automobile Dependence.
By Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman (1989). The revolutionary, breakthrough book that changed my life as a planner. In its day, it turned conventional wisdom on its head with regard to traffic congestion, road widening and parking. Their international survey of cities shows that gas consumption and air pollution go DOWN as a result of congestion. That free-flowing traffic, big roads and excessive amounts of parking INCREASE gas consumption and air pollution (and also destroy community quality of life). This work also clearly shows the fundamental role that transportation plays in how a city forms. “The land use and urban form of cities are…fundamentally shaped by priorities in transportation…the essential character of a city’s land use comes down to how it manages its transport…higher average traffic speed appears to spread the city, creating lower density land use, a greater need for cars, longer travel distances and reduced use of other less polluting or pollution-free modes. The benefits gained in terms of less polluting traffic streams appear to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of extra travel and the resulting bulk of emissions.”
Home From Nowhere.
By James Howard Kunstler (1996). The author combines an impressive understanding of quality urban design with hilarious, vitriolic, provocative observations about architecture in America. I have never laughed so hard in any book I have read. Or learned so much about the awful nature of buildings in the United States. Kunstler has made the point that, “what’s bad about sprawl is not its uniformity, but that it is so uniformly bad.”
Cities in Full.
By Steve Belmont (2002). The best case I’ve ever read about the merits of high residential densities in cities, and why such densities are essential for city health. A stupendous discussion about what ingredients are necessary for the wellbeing of a city. And why it is so important for a downtown to be the centralized community focus for jobs, housing and retail (instead of a polycentric city form). Excellent discussion about why the monocentric city is best for commuting.
The Great Good Place.
By Ray Oldenburg (1991). Oldenburg discusses the crucial importance of “The Third Place,” the place we would traditionally go to after the work day for socializing with friends and regularly finding a sense of community, the place where “everyone knows your name.” They are distinctive, informal gathering places, they make the citizen feel at home, they nourish relationships and a diversity of human contact, they help create a sense of place and community, they invoke a sense of civic pride, they provide numerous opportunities for serendipity, they promote companionship, they allow people to relax and unwind after a long day at work, they are socially binding, they encourage sociability instead of isolation, they make life more colorful, and they enrich public life and democracy. Their disappearance in our culture is unhealthy for our cities because, as Oldenburg points out, they are the bedrock of community life and all the benefits that come from such interaction.
By Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (2000). A superb summary of the downfall of the American neighborhood and how it can be restored. “In [the traditional New England town], one can live above the store, next to the store, five minutes from the store or nowhere near the store, and it is easy to imagine the different age groups and personalities that would prefer each alternative. In this way and others, the traditional neighborhood provides for an array of lifestyles. In conventional suburbia, there is only one available lifestyle: to own a car and to need it for everything.”
By Marvin Harris (1979). This book is about anthropology, not urban design, but it transformed how I think about human behavior, and therefore plays an essential role in my understanding why humans behave the way they do. For us to be effective in our urban design, it is necessary to know that humans behave largely due to the material conditions they face in their everyday world, and how very little behavior is due to the exhortation of ideas, or educating citizens about how to properly behave.
Trees in Urban Design.
By Henry Arnold (1985). This should be a regularly consulted reference book on the shelves of all urban designers. An enormous wealth of information from an arborist who learned a great many things, in a long career, about the proper placement of trees to achieve better urbanism. How proper tree placement and selection can play a powerful role in creating a better city ambience. His prescriptions, while highly accurate and vitally important for a quality city, quite often run counter to what is frequently sought after by contemporary utility companies and other municipal engineers, which helps explain why most of our cities tend to be quite awful when it comes to their trees.
Stuck in Traffic.
By Anthony Downs (1992). Another landmark book that changed how I think about transportation and city planning. In this highly readable book—required reading, by the way, for elected officials—Downs popularizes the concept of induced travel—what he calls The Triple Convergence. Why it is impossible for us to build our way out of congestion. He writes in an extremely understandable way about topics that are complex, yet crucially important—given the hundreds of billions of public dollars we spend to try to ease congestion.
Once you have read the above, there are ten additional, magnificent books worth your time.
The Car and the City. By Alan Durning (1996).
Urban Sprawl and Public Health. By Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank, Richard Jackson (2004).
Getting There. By Stephen B.Goddard (1994).
Crabgrass Frontier. By Kenneth Jackson (1985).
How Cities Work. By Alex Marshall (2001).
The Wealth of Cities. By John Norquist (1998).
Visions for a New American Dream. By Anton C. Nelessen (1994).
Changing Places. By Richard Moe, Wilkie Carter Wilkie (1997).
A Better Place to Live. By Philip Langdon (1994).