School yourself: 5 books you should have read about your urban space

With the dog days of summer lazily creeping up on us, there remain but a few weeks left to accomplish that summer reading that you so longed to do.

Remember? The promise you made back in May to read the complete works of Dostoevsky? Or to brush up on your 17th century French literature? And how about that attempt to become acquainted with the great works of philosophy? It was an ambitious commitment but let’s be serious: you and I know none if it is going to get done.

Planetizen, the urban planning, design, and development website, publishes its own annual TOP 10 in urban planning literature. For those more ambitious, it has listed its TOP 20 urban planning books of all time. And while every book on that tally is an obvious must-read (Hello Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson, I’m talking to you!), I would like to take this time to share a few books that, if I were a professor, I would be assigning as mandatory reading:

1. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
« When he enters the territory of which Eutropia is the capital, the traveller sees not one city but many, of equal size and not unlike one another, scattered over a vast, rolling plateau. Eutropia is not one, but all these cities together; only one is inhabited at a time, the others are empty; and this procession is carried out in rotation. »

What if cities could be whatever we desire? Invisible Cities ruminates upon this question – so come on in city lovers! It’s got white cities, black cities, Spanish cities, yellow cities, it’s got hot cities, cold cities, it’s got wet cities, it’s got smelly cities, it’s got hairy cities, bloody cities, it’s got snappin’ cities, it’s got silk cities, velvet cities, … If this book don’t got it, you don’t want it! What if cities really could be whatever we desired? Why can’t cities be whatever we desire?

2. Traffic in Towns by Sir Colin Buchanan
« Unless steps are taken, the motor vehicle will defeat its own utility and bring about a disastrous degradation of the surroundings for living. »

As the old saying goes: “You’ve gotta know where you come from to know where you are going.” I always get a kick out of seeing the crazy schemes people were concocting back in the old days; like the shit they thought up at the world’s fairs – back when world’s fairs were relevant. Man! What were they smoking? And where can I score me some? We all should thank our lucky stars that most of this nonsense did not see fruition and the remnants of this quackery are slowly being dismantled. But the more modest proposals remain steadfast. Why are we so quick to segregate cars from bikes from pedestrians from living? Take a gander at the most influential document to come out of England since the Magna Carta.

3. Propaganda by Edward Bernays
« The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. »

« We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. »

A colleague informed me of a 1960’s-era documentary discussing the construction of our beautiful Ville-Marie expressway in Montreal. An elderly Québécois woman is asked to relate her feelings about her changing habitat. Gone were the parks, the green space, the trees, the playing children in the streets. Her response? She loved the expressway in her backyard. She loved the fumes of the cars which will cut her life short. She loved the sound of the traffic buzzing by her window; it allowed her to be a part of the modernizing Montreal. Why did she spout such connerie? Because it’s what she’s been told to believe. And now she believes it.

Every stupid decision that the masses swallow with their milk, Maalox, and dry martinis is due to propaganda. In this Bible of human behaviour, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and the father of public relations, shows us not only how we are no different from one of the dogs hanging out at Pavlov’s place, but also how important propaganda is to sustain our democracy.

I suggest: Learn the power of propaganda to further your cause against The Man before The Man uses it against you.

4. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
« After that night, people spoke of the Lisbon girls in the past tense, and if they mentioned Mary at all it was with the veiled wish that she would hurry up and get it over with. »

Whenever I visit my parent’s home, out in the suburbs, the same feeling comes over me – The sweaty palms. The tightness in the chest. The difficulty breathing. I feel all angsty, like I were 15 again: listening to the classics like Pearl Jam, Portishead, and the Notorious B.I.G.; imagining I were Jeremy, speaking in class again.

I can safely say that I am no fan of the suburbs. I find the surroundings stifling, the people perfunctory, and the development devastating. But the fact is, the suburbs have come to define the modern North American city; the portrait of which has been painted in this novel is incredibly haunting. Out there, no one gives a damn about you, your family, or themselves. And yet, here in the CMM, people are still flocking to the suburbs in droves. Why? See Book #3.

5. From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe
« Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse. »

Everyone’s a critic. That’s for sure. But when someone points out how everyone despises the architecture surrounding them, that’s not what I call delivering a critique – that’s what I call stating a fact.

More known for his work on 1980’s New York and American college co-eds, Tom Wolfe pens an often laugh-out-loud depiction of our relationship with our built environment. The question remains: if we hate it so much, why do we continue to put up with it? Alas, the very same question can be posed of most modern phenomena in urban planning.

6. The Street by Mordecai Richler

Ok. So I lied. There are actually 6 books on this list; I included this one for selfish reasons. Like the characters in this collection of short stories, I too live on St-Urbain. And it astonishes me that the life and the heart and the spirit described in this book existed on what has now essentially become a one-way expressway into downtown. I included this book in hopes that enough of us read it and demand that we return our neighbourhoods to a state where we can actually live in them. Minus the working-class poverty of course – this is afterall, The Plateau.


  1. Hey! Just want to point out one great book that urbanism fans will “eat up” – NOT literally of course!

    If you like William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man” or like “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”, or maybe like his film based on the latter ( – now pulled off of Youtube), you need to read “City: Rediscovering the Center” by Whyte.

    It is witty, charming, and hugely under-appreciated.  If you love Jacobs, but wish she got more into the nitty-gritty of how successful public space functions, this is the book for you.  You can be an amateur flaneur or a card-carrying member of The Project for Public Spaces – it’s a solid investment of your time.

    Whyte’s observations are brilliant, wrapped in a folksy writing style and peppered with entertaining anecdotes.  (Just grit your teeth when his wit veers towards Mad-Men-style chauvinism.)

    I cannot recommend “City: Rediscovering the Center” highly enough.

  2. Ooohhh ohohhoho!!! I forgot!  

    If you can find “The Exploding Metropolis” for a couple of dollars (or less, on Ebay), pick it up! It’s a collection of essays published by Fortune magazine in 1958 – 3 years before “Death and Life…”.

    I picked up a dusty soft cover for $0.50  There’s essays by Whyte, Jacobsand some other progressive urban thinkers.  Better yet, there’s a bunch of terribly naive and wrongheaded essays that make for interesting reading with hindsight. 

    It’s a dollar, buy it!

  3. I thought your résumé was very interesting, but I thought your anecdote in point 3 was needlessly nasty. Part of being an effective historian is an ability to strive for neutrality in terms of paradigm. Perhaps “old” Montreal for this woman was tar-paper shacks and sweatshops and the “new” Montreal was an exhilarating time of cultural renaissance and freedom? Who are you to challenge the “proust of Madeleine” she chooses to symbolize that time, as bizarre as this somewhat uncommon (and unhealthy) example may seem to us today?

  4. Speaking of interesting essay collections — “What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs” is well worth picking up. Okay, truth be told, there is an Clare Cooper Marcus piece about cul-de-sacs that might trigger the same panic that certain passages out of “Virgin Suicides” might, but I would still take a look at “What We See”.

    Designers, planners, artists, economists, community activists, and others inspired by Jane Jacobs contributed original essays to this collection, connecting Jacobs’ work with issues and ideas of today & tomorrow. Contributors from Janine Benyus to Janette Sadik-Khan make “What We See” both a good reminder of what really gives cities life and a great prompt for inspiring possibilities for next steps. Here’s a good place to start:

  5. Oooohohhoho!!! One more!

    There are two books I keep turned around on my bookshelf so as not to show the binding. First is “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, mainly because the big swastika on the side occasionally makes for misunderstandings and awkward conversation. Brilliant piece of history, of course.

    The second of the two is “Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto” by Robert Fulford, as I don’t want visitors knowing that I own a book on Toronto. Though never very cohesive, “Accidental City” offers an interesting series of anecdotes, observations and accounts relating to Toronto’s modern history. I’ve always found Toronto’s urban form to be jumbled and confusing, but “Accidental City” allowed me a better appreciation of the city’s “sloppy urbanism” and the charm inherent to it.

    The book is a light read, and it probably costs two bucks if you can track it down. Read it over the course of an afternoon while sprawled out in a park. I, personally, would flip over the dust jacket, though.

    Last one, really: “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America”. An account of urban decay and decline in the US, told through the lens of Atlantic City. A tragic story told well. To look at the city’s grid of Monopoly streets as they stand today… Park Place is an alley between windowless parking garages; (the) Boardwalk is an urban horror to behold. At least Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues are true to form – low rent.

  6. Bernays? Sounds about right for this lot. PROPAGANDA! OMG. Quick, Stacy, let’s get a tattoo! Psst, there is no MAN, except maybe the last man. Our desublimated self-assertion, ganging up en masse in an American Eagle advert on a summer’s day to jealously beat upon the pointy-heads, married women and other figures of virtue. There’s your man. And good thing we got rid of that tacky working class poverty, now we can scoff at Quebecers with Mordecai Richler whilst upon our fixie bikes. If only they’d tear down all the Tim Hortons and all those fat slobs and replace them with… Starbucks. I hate to be right about presuming the existence of a layer of resentful bile bubbling just under the surface among the McGill “lefties” but you outdid yourself here.

  7. I will recommend A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander

  8. Oh oh oh!  If you would like some really fascinating summer reading, maybe while slacking of at work, check these old articles from “The Atlantic” out!  If you are fascinated/horrified by Robert Moses, these articles should be required reading:

    “Robert Moses – An Atlantic Portrait”, Cleveland Rodgers, February 1939 – An uncritical (but eminently readable) ode to the Master Builder.  Not Pulitzer-worthy journalism, but it provides a decent counterweight to “The Power Broker”.  

    “Slums and City Planning”, Robert Moses, January 1945 – Moses makes a case for towers in the park as logical extension of progressive, settlement house movement.  Launches acerbic attacks on real-estate speculators and slumlords.

    “Build and be Damned”, Robert Moses, December, 1950 – Moses rails against suburban sprawl (!), subdivisions, and poor FHA policy and over-lending.  Launches acerbic attacks on real-estate speculators and “progressive” planners. 

    “Are Cities Dead?”, Robert Moses, January, 1962 – Moses reaffirms belief in necessity of dense, urban core as heart of metropolitan region.  Rails against garden-city planners like Lewis Mumford.   Launches acerbic attacks on real-estate speculators and communists. 

  9. Oh, Dumb-Dumb, here’s the links!

    “Robert Moses – An Atlantic Portrait”, Cleveland Rodgers, February 1939:

    “Slums and City Planning”, Robert Moses, January 1945

    “Build and be Damned”, Robert Moses, December, 1950

    “Are Cities Dead?”, Robert Moses, January, 1962

  10. What’s the title of the documentary about the Ville-Marie expressway mentionned in #3?

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