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Top Ten Urban Design Books

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.

Suburban Nation.

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.”

Cultural Materialism.

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).

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A Community Visioning Checklist

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Throughout the nation, there is a growing interest in, and concern about, whether the community has a clear, proud, effective vision that will lead to a quality future. Oftentimes, this interest and concern is borne from citizens who
look around their community and are appalled by the changes that have occurred due to new development. “Where is the vision?,” they ask, when they see the growth of an Anywhere USA strip commercial corridor being created on one of
their major roads. “Do we have a plan? Do we have development regulations to protect and promote our quality of life? What will this community be like 20 years from now? Will my children be safe and happy?”

Below is a checklist that can be used to determine whether a community will be able to establish and maintain a vision that delivers a quality of life in the future.

  1. Has your community elected a courageous, wise elected leader (or leaders)? Such people have a clear vision for the future of the community, have hired the staff which is effective in achieving the vision, and are willing to make decisions that will make some people unhappy. (If you are not making some people unhappy, you are not doing anything. You are not a leader.)
  2. Does your community acknowledge that the lynchpin for a quality future is a strong, overriding focus on seeing that future design is making people happy, not cars? A community with vision should have a plan for putting some of its overweight roads on a “diet.” (by removing unnecessary, ruinous travel lanes) The focus on making cars happy has been the default strategy in nearly all development that has occurred in the United States since approximately WWII.
    Without courageous, wise leadership, future development in your community will continue with this status quo, and will result in a downwardly spiraling quality of life. Designing for cars instead of people defines an absence of vision. And an absence of leadership.
  3. Do your elected officials insist that the staff within the Public Works Department, the Fire Department and the state Department of Transportation adhere to the community vision? Typically, the staff from these three agencies tend to have the most powerfully negative impact on a community vision because they tend to suboptimize on their narrow agency agenda instead of the broader community vision, and these three agencies have a long, powerful, relentless history of creating a car-happy community of big, high-speed roads and other elements that subvert a walkable, high quality of life for people.
  4. Does your land development code acknowledge that one size does not fit all? That the full range of lifestyles must be provided for in the community? Not just the suburban, car-oriented lifestyle, but also the walkable urban lifestyle
    and the rural, pastoral lifestyle. As the Toronto planning director once said, the greatest threat to cities in North America is suburbanization. Suburban design should be one of manylifestyle choices, not the only choice.
  5. Does your community use a “transect-based” regulatory system that enables #4 above? That is, creating urban, suburban and rural zones in your community, and applying variable, appropriate regulations for each zone that are designed to
    maximize the quality of each zone for that lifestyle. Transect-based regulations help unify “overlay” plans, which have proliferated in recent decades as a way to try to customize regulations for special places in the community. This
    proliferation often results in an enormous number of overlays throughout the community, which becomes confusing, contradictory and difficult for administrative staff and developers. Instead of one transect vision, there are several. Transect planning consolidates all the “urban” overlays into one or two regulatory zones. All of the “suburban” overlays are placed into a second or third zone, and all of the “rural” overlays are placed into a subsequent zone.
  6. Does your community benefit from a charrette process? That is, a visioning process in which an intensive, relatively brief education and design session is accomplished by expert urban designers, architects, planners and citizens to create a neighborhood, community-wide or regional vision.
  7. Is your community proactive or reactive? For several decades, American communities have been reactive. Passively sitting back with regulations designed to prevent things from happening when a development proposal is brought in by a private developer. The rare proactive community, by contrast, has established a strong vision that is strictly followed by elected officials, staff and developers. Developers know, up front, what is generally planned for an area – particularly in terms of the street layout and design, building disposition, and the mix and location of uses intended for the area. That is, a clear vision has already been established for the area to be developed.
  8. Has your community coupled transect planning and a proactive method of regulation with “form-based” codes? Form-based codes are primarily focused on the form and design of buildings and streets. The traditional codes used in nearly all American cities are use-based codes, which are primarily focused on separating “incompatible” land uses from each other. The use-based approach creates no vision for the neighborhood or community. Such codes also promote a maximum separation of houses from offices and parks and culture and shops. While this was fairly important over 100 years ago, it is much less important today (because workplaces are now relatively compatible with homes). Use-based codes, by separating uses, promote auto dependency and make walking, bicycling and transit very difficult, if not impossible. Form-based codes acknowledge that over the course of time, a quality of design for a building is much more important for quality of life than what goes on inside the building. Buildings and streets, moreover, tend to have a much longer life span than land uses, which further increases the importance of getting the design of buildings and streets right, instead of the location of land uses.
  9. Have your elected officials shown enough courageous leadership to give your government staff “permission” to propose visionary plans and regulations? Nearly always, the staff has the knowledge necessary to be visionary and describe what
    a community needs to do to achieve its vision, but never proposes such strategies because they do not feel as if they are allowed to do so by elected officials. Officials who are willing to stand behind staff when staff is challenged (usually by developers or property owners) about visionary plans or regulations that are consistent with the community vision. Without leadership, a community often finds itself in the position of frequently hiring out-of-town consultants to prepare a plan. While this can sometimes be beneficial in jump-starting a better community path, it can also be easily ignored by elected officials and staff who are not vested in the ideas of the plan.
  10. Has your community hired one or more full-time urban designers to help promote the vision? Without such staff, a community can lose focus on the vision over time, or not be assisted in imaging possibilities. Or not have the skills
    needed to review development plans.
  11. Is your community vision graphics-based? Images, drawings, and photographs are much more assessable to non-professional citizens. Images are easier for citizens to understand than numbers or written (often jargon) words. They
    therefore more clearly convey to the largest number of citizens what the vision looks like.
  12. Is your vision based on a long-range, 20- or 50-year time horizon? If not, your vision may be too timid. As Andres Duany reminds us, with time, anything is possible. Don’t limit yourself to only those things that can be financed or otherwise achieved in a few years.
  13. Are the local government attorneys in your community willing to work to find a legal basis justifying aggressive visions? Often, public sector attorneys are overly conservative and unwilling to support design concepts for fear of losing lawsuits. A confident legal staff can be a powerful tool in achieving goals.
  14. Has your community acknowledged that quality of life is a powerful economic engine and a win-win strategy? As Richard Florida points out in his Rise of the Creative Class, the tradition for communities striving to promote economic
    development is to become more of a “doormat.” That is, attract jobs to the community by lowering regulatory standards. Or lowering taxes. Or providing subsidies. Increasingly, however, this is a losing strategy for economic development (and one that lowers community quality of life). Increasingly, the most effective strategy for economic development is to protect and promote the quality of life of the community. Doing so not only is beneficial to existing residents. It also helps retain quality people to stay in the community (instead of repelling them with an awful quality of life – often referred to as “brain drain”). Furthermore, a high quality of life tends to attract quality people from other communities. The result is that increasingly, job-producing companies are re-locating to communities with a high quality of life (instead of places with low taxes and meaningless development regulations). A great many companies now know that such communities will mean it is easier to retain and attract quality employees who will have a positive impact on the productivity of the company.

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Visioning