Blog Post

Books for urbanists – a year in review, a year in prospect

The festive season is a time to look back and look forward, so I thought I’d highlight some of the best books published in 2018 and those coming up in 2019, of interest to urbanists.

First, 2018.

I think the book that made the biggest impression on me last year was Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism (Penguin), a penetrating attempt to offer both new theoretical foundations and a new policy agenda for a radical, but common sense, social democracy. Collier worries deeply about the new geographical fissures that have opened between successful cities and left-behind places and offers some radical ideas for mending them – ideas that don’t always make comfortable reading for cities like London and New York.

LSE Cities new door-stopper, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age (Phaidon), edited by Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode, is a handsome compendium of essays, graphics and analysis, that would enhance any coffee table, but equally any serious library. With 37 essays by leading policy-makers, practitioners and scholars, the publication offers new perspectives on the dynamics of urban change.

I can also recommend Douglas Farr’s Sustainable Nation, Urban Design Patterns for the Future (Wiley). The book provides a compelling manifesto for more liveable and sustainable cities and neighbourhoods, grounded in a perceptive analysis of how social change happens.

Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities, The Perils and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso), a powerful mixture of reportage and scholarly analysis, highlights the vulnerability of cities around the world to rising sea-levels and extreme weather conditions, and the failure of most of them to rise to the challenge presented by climate change.

Eric Munford’s Designing the Modern City, Urbanism Since 1850 (Yale) is a rich history of the role that urban design has played over the last two centuries. Starting in Europe but then ranging across the world, it packs an exceptional amount of information and insight into its 360 pages.

Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People (Penguin), builds on the New York sociologist’s early works on the importance of social ties, with an ambitious and compelling exploration of the value of ‘social infrastructure’ – built spaces, like parks and libraries that allow people to connect.

Moving from the general to the particular, The Library Book (Simon and Schuster) has had great reviews. An appreciation of Los Angles Central Library, part history, part contemporary profile, it sits well alongside Palaces for the People – a loving case study on the ongoing value, even in the digital age, of one piece of urban social infrastructure.

I also enjoyed New York Rising (Monicelli Press) by Kate Ascher and Thomas Mellins, which provides a short and well written history of the development of New York, with illustrations from the Durst Collection – an archive built up by Seymour Hirsh, a wealthy New York developer, and recently given to Columbia University.

I have not read Eric Hazan’s A Walk Through Paris (Verso), but will do so on my next trip to Paris.  Hazan is a radical historian and his latest book takes the form of a day-long walk through Paris, in search of its revolutionary past and present.

The London-based transport journalist, historian and campaigner Christian Wolmar can generally be relied upon to write with both flair and good sense. His latest book, Driverless Cars: On a Road to Nowhere (Perspectives) is an entertaining but also compelling polemic against all the bullshit talked about self-drive cars. It deserves to be widely read.

Looking ahead to 2019

I have long been surprised by how hard it is to find any sort of overview of forthcoming books. As far as I can see, there is still no alternative to reading the catalogues of the various publishing houses – and there is almost no information about anything planned post June. However, my research has thrown up the following.

I start with Order Without Design (MIT, January) by Alain Bertaud, a New York-based planner and academic, and formerly Principal Urban Planner for the World Bank. Bertaud argues that too much urban planning is done without sufficient heed to economics and makes a strong case for the integration of urban planning and urban economics, not just at the theoretical level, but in real world urban planning authorities.

Otto Saumerez Smith – Boom Cities, Planners, Architects and Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain (OUP, April) promises to do exactly what it says on the tin: tell the story of the Modernist remodelling of Britain’s cities in the post war year. I can’t help feeling this will make for depressing reading, though OUP’s catalogue suggests something more surprising and unorthodox.

Raquel Rolnick’s Urban Warfare, Housing and Cities in An Age of Finance (Penguin, March) is a left-wing take on the financialisation of housing – a process, Rolnick argues, that began in the US and UK, but is gradually spreading its tentacles across the world.

No one knows their way around London, its culture and its people better than the DJ, journalist and broadcaster Robert Elms. His latest book, London Made Us (Canongate, March) is a memoir of the city he grew up in and a guide to parts of it lost or on the edge of extinction.

The focus of Sarah Seo’s Policing the Open Road (Harvard, April) looks niche but intriguing. Seo, a law professor at the University of Iowa, traces how the rise of the car has vastly extended the role of the police in US society, with disastrous consequences for the very freedom the car was meant to represent – especially the freedom of racial minorities.

In Why Cities Lose? (Basic Books, June), the Stanford-based political scientist Jonathan Rodden explores the rise and the sources of urban-rural polarization, and asks what can be done to address it. The book focuses mainly on US but argues that the patterns it describes and the reforms it advances have wider application.

Ben Green’s The Smart Enough City (MIT, April) cautions again giving tech businesses and tech thinking too much influence in the development of our cities. He proposes instead that cities strive to be “smart enough”: to embrace technology as a powerful tool, to advance deeper ideals of justice and conviviality.

I very much look forward to reading Richard Williams’s Why Cities Look The Way They Do (Wiley, June). Planners and architects like to think that their work determines how cities look and function. But Williams’s book focuses on bottom-up forces that shape our cities, and the way people, markets and movements use, appropriate and re-purpose work of professional ‘city makers’.

Finally, Not Working: Where Have All The Good Jobs Gone? (Princeton, June) by the influential Anglo-American economist David Blanchflower promises to be one of the big policy books of the year. This is not strictly a book about cities. But cities have been at the centre of recent transformations in the labour market and the rise of poorly paid and precarious jobs – the focus of Blanchflower’s book – and are at the forefront of efforts to manage the consequences.

That’s it for now. But do let me know if I have missed any books you think worth including.


Ben Rogers is Director at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.