Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Urbanism Books for 2013

When it comes to books, I’m a troglodyte.  I can see a lot of theoretical benefits in digital book readers.  But there’s something compelling about curling up in a comfortable chair with dead trees.  And those who have seen my library know the extent to which I take my affection for old-fashioned books.

But regardless of the format you prefer, 2012 was a good year for books on urbanism.  Which gives us a long list of possible reading materials for 2013.

Let’s start with the Planetizen list of the top ten urbanism books of 2012.  “Walkable City” is the stand-out on the list, but I’m also intrigued by “Urban Planning for Dummies”.  As Planetizen notes, “Seeing a ‘Dummies’ book about urban planning is actually a testament to the fact that the field of urban planning has arrived in the public consciousness.”  And I hope to find time for “Straphanger” and “Too Much Magic”.  The author of the latter, James Howard Kunstler, often goes beyond my beliefs, but is always entertaining.

As 2013 dawns, the hot book in urbanism is “Walkable City”.   Author Jeff Speck is an urban planner who didn’t begin his career with a focus on walkability.  However, when he dug into questions of how to improve urban function, he found walkability to be a surprisingly frequent solution.  So he finally yielded to the inevitable and wrote a book on the subject.

The book has been remarkably well-reviewed.  More importantly, it has spawned numerous other articles and inquiries into the nature of walkability.  If there will be an urbanism game changer in 2013, it’s probably this book.

A surprising omission from the Planetizen list is the ten-year anniversary reissue of “The Rise of the Creative Class” by Richard Florida.  His argument that a successful city is the result of a critical mass of creative people has gathered a following in the years since his initial book.  But the argument remains controversial to many.  The suggestion that people writing software at Starbucks is more important to civic vitality than old-line manufacturing or good government challenges too many shibboleths to be easily accepted.

Another author of note is Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Several years ago, Taleb wrote “The Black Swan”, an argument that human history is disproportionately influenced by events that were completely unexpected.   His most striking example was that on September 10, 2001 no one expected world history for the following decade to be dominated by the repercussions of terrorists flying airplanes into buildings.

Having introduced “black swan” into the planning lexicon, Taleb next tried to answer the question that he had effectively posed, how to build systems, organizations, and communities that survive black swans.  He offers his thoughts in “Antifragile”, which was published in 2012.  Not surprisingly, he finds urbanism to be one of the answers.  Indeed, StrongTowns specifically endorses “Antifragile”.

And on the subject of StrongTowns, Charles Marohn published his own book in 2012, “Thoughts on Building StrongTowns, Volume 1”.

And yet, with all these great candidates, we still haven’t gotten to the Kaid Benfield’s favorite new book.  Benfield, writing for the National Resources Defense Council on the best of 2012, notes the value that Speck and Marohn provide, but gives the nod to Pastor Eric Jacobsen and his book “The Space Between” on the relationship between urbanism and Christianity.   (I wrote about  Jacobsen several months ago.)  Benfield finds that Jacobsen adds a fresh and provocative voice to the conversation.

A few weeks ago, I said that I would devote myself to reading about climate change over the holidays.  And I did.  I’m enjoying the learning, but the holidays being what they are, I didn’t get as far into my climate change library as I had hoped.  So I’ll continue with climate change for another couple of weeks.  But Florida, Speck, Taleb, and Marohn are all on my reading table, awaiting my attention.  And I should be adding Jacobsen and Kunstler to the stack.

I hope you join me in reading at least one of these books.  Urbanism may be complex, but learning about it can be rewarding.  Whether from an electronic book reader or dead trees.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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