101 BOOKS ABOUT WHERE AND HOW WE LIVE

Recommended reading from urban experts and Curbed contributors

By Alissa WalkerPatrick Sisson, and Sara Polsky  Updated Nov 25, 2019, 9:30 am EST

Illustrations by Paige Vickers

 

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Because loving where you live is just the beginning—it’s about making it better, too.

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Perhaps more than at any other time in American history, where we live determines much about what we know. As people who write about cities, we realized this presented a remarkable opportunity. We wanted to find stories about where people live that could change the way we think about the world.

Urban Classics | Why We Build | Cities We Love | Changing Places | Planning the Future | Understanding People | How We Live Today

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in November 2016 and has been updated with new titles.

We asked our editors to choose a story that helped them to understand a place. We tapped a handful of authors, many of whom have works included on this list, to pass along their recommendations as well. And even though there’s so much to read on these topics at the tap of a finger, we specifically chose books as our medium because they are forged from reported and researched facts.

This isn’t necessarily the same-old list of famous urbanism books, although plenty of them are represented here. These are books about making cities, but also books about how cities have made us, whether it’s our own hometown or somewhere on the other side of the planet. These are books that examine how cities change and sometimes end up alienating the people who built them. And there are plenty of brand-new books on this list because they reflect what people are thinking about today.

We hope that by exploring this list, and sharing these titles with others, you’ll learn we share more than common ground.

  1. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte

“Even after 36 years and the proliferation of pop-up urbanisms, no book brings the nooks and crannies and plazas and sidewalks around you into sharper focus. Short, well-illustrated and written with a slightly raffish tone, it’s a smart, enduring delight.” —John King, architecture critic, San Francisco Chronicle

  1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

“Ask almost any urban planner, and he or she will cite Death and Life as a major influence. Jane Jacobs herself called it an ‘attack’ on established ideas of city planning at the time; she advocates smartly for dense, diverse cities.” —Sara Polsky, deputy editor, Curbed

  1. Civilizing American Cities: Writings On City Landscapes by Frederick Law Olmsted

City-dwellers take natural refuges like Central Park as a given, but pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead willed these great public spaces into existence, convinced of the value of nature during a time of rapid industrialization. The book collects his plans for masterpieces such as Chicago’s Jackson Park with his eloquent writing on landscapes across the U.S. We rightfully marvel at new parks and landscape designs, but Olmstead truly planted the seed for a greener urban America.

  1. The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

By visualizing the systems that make cities possible, Ascher puts the guts of urbanism on vibrant display in this incredibly charming yet thought-provoking take on what lies beneath our streets.

  1. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser

The economist’s argument for why embracing the skyscraper is better for almost every aspect of human life.

  1. The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It by Richard Florida

The New Urban Crisis might be seen as Florida’s attempt to explain himself, and in fact, he admits right away that he was ‘overly optimistic,’ encouraging a particular paradigm without anticipating the consequences of his ideas. But it turns out that looking at what happened to the creative class after they urbanized is actually a very good way to roadmap rising inequality.” —Richard Florida’s ‘The New Urban Crisis’ looks at where cities went wrong

  1. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History by Spiro Kostof

From blocks to boulevards to our biggest metropolises, Kostof’s masterclass on urban patterns explains the stories behind the shapes of our cities, leaping between different eras and continents in a free-association look at urban form. Like most cities, the book isn’t organized in straight lines, but it rewards those willing to get a little lost.

  1. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by Lewis Mumford

This 1961 survey is a wide-reaching, global history of the phenomenon that we’ve come to know as the city—essentially, how our choice to urbanize has impacted civilization as a whole.

  1. Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities by Witold Rybczynski

By looking at trends in American city design, from the Garden City to City Beautiful, Rybczynski asks whether or not those idealistic visions can serve places as diverse and dispersed as the U.S. is today.

  1. Hearts of the City by Herbert Muschamp

The one-time New York Times critic, who artfully wove his reviews with pop culture references and accessible yet colorful language, galvanized others to write and think about cities in a new way. Through his evident passion for places, Muschamp turned a generation of interested readers into engaged urban advocates. The stories feel completely fresh today.

  1. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres DuanyElizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck

This seminal 2000 book offered a persuasive argument for why sprawl killed the U.S.—and ideas for what Americans could do to fix it. Sixteen years later, it remains to be seen if the country heeded this advice.

  1. The Living City by Frank Lloyd Wright

One of several books in which Wright laid out his plans for Broadacre City, a utopian city lacking most of the density we associate with urban areas. (The name comes from the fact that each family would receive at least one acre of land.)

  1. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer edited by John Maloof

An unknown photographer who worked as a nanny in big U.S. cities during the 1950s and 1960s captured some of the most poignant moments of American street life.

  1. City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction by David Macaulay

David Macaulay’s work is a perfect introduction to city planning for kids—or adults!—illustrating how the Romans designed their cities through the creation of a fictional one.

  1. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippiby Timothy Pauketat

Over 1,000 years ago, the largest human settlement north of Mexico was this thriving community of “mound builders” near present-day St. Louis. Widely considered to be the first North American city—with a population as large as London at the time—Cahokia eventually vanished but left behind an ambitious and utterly urban footprint.

  1. A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh

“I love the idea that architecture seems so orderly, and so navigable and so rational. But there is this other way of navigating through it that reveals the kind of irrational, unnamable, almost dizzying side of architecture…moving through walls, or in the case of burglary, moving up and down through holes in the floor.” —Interview with the author on Curbed

  1. Learning from Las Vegas by Robert VenturiSteven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown

One of the most important books about architecture and cities focuses not on the millennia-old cathedrals of ancient civilizations but on the scrubby technicolor motels of the baked Nevada desert. When famous architects turned their attention to American vernacular, it turned the profession on its ear and forced designers to think hard about how to build places for the common people that were culturally relevant and universally appreciated.

  1. Building Stories by Chris Ware

In graphic novelist Chris Ware’s masterpiece, a Chicago brownstone serves as the backdrop to the stories of struggling residents. Spread across a series of books, pamphlets, and other printed materials, Ware’s incredibly human and heartbreaking stories use architecture and apartments as the unifying force of these disparate narratives, a reminder of the powerful human stories that may be occurring next door.

  1. Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt

“How an ordinary town, in an ordinary country, became an industrialized death camp in which over 1.2 million people were murdered. While we all think we know the answer, this book makes it clear that Hitler couldn’t have built a facility on that scale without the assistance of trained architects and planners.” —Karrie Jacobs, contributor to Curbed and faculty member at the School of Visual Arts’s Design Research, Writing, and Criticism program

  1. Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of New Architecture by Justin McGuirk

“This is an engagingly-written, continent-wide introduction to the ways in which a couple of generations of Latin American architects and urban planners have contended with issues such as social housing, transportation and even the border. It offers a lot of lessons to us here in Los Angeles about flexibility, ingenuity, and social equity—of poor neighborhoods that offer as much (or even more) dynamism than our tony emerald lawn zones.” —Carolina A. Miranda, staff writer, Los Angeles Times

  1. The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home by Karrie Jacobs

“Karrie Jacobs, a professional observer of the man-made landscape and frequent Curbed contributor, was the founding editor of Dwell magazine. After her tenure at the shelter mag, she set off across the country on a quest to find the ‘ideal’ American home: one that’s intelligently designed and reasonably priced. On her journey, Jacobs interviewed architects and builders as a means to understand the forces shaping how we consider our homes, revolutionize construction techniques, and form communities.” —Kelsey Keith, editor-in-chief, Curbed

  1. The Design of Childhood by Alexandra Lange

“I started this project because I had a baby, but I feel as if I learned as much about myself and the particular possessions and preoccupations of a 1970s childhood along the way. The reason I kept searching for unisex clothing for my kids, for example, was because that is what I grew up wearing… but that went out of fashion and out of stores in the 1980s. Did Norman Foster play on a geodesic dome climber (as I did)? Bjarke Ingels, as a Dane, obviously ate LEGO for dinner. Did David Adjaye’s mother sew?”— Q&A with the author on Curbed

  1. Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture by Rowan Moore

Architect and architecture critic Rowan Moore looks not only at the reasons why we have the buildings we do, but also at the people (both architects and occupants) who design those buildings and what motivates them.

  1. From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe

“During my brief stint in architecture school, I had a professor who practically worshipped Mies van der Rohe. I hate Mies. I got into a huge argument with my professor about the Farnsworth House, which led to my eventually deciding that architecture was not for me, since apparently making a home that someone can live in is less important than adhering to an architectural idea. Which is why I love Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House….Tom Wolfe is a journalist, not an architect or architecture critic, but it takes an outsider to say the things everyone’s thinking: this stuff is ugly and soulless.” —Laura Euler, former editor, Curbed Hamptons

  1. Subway by Bruce Davidson

The graffiti may be erased, the block may be gentrified, and boomboxes are few and far between, but at least this stunning photobook allows for a temporary time warp back to the hip-hop era. Published in 1986, Bruce Davidson’s photographic ode to the origins of a global movement capture a time when it was a simple homegrown culture shaped by the city.

  1. The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City by Carl Smith

In 1909, Daniel Burnham coauthored the Plan of Chicago, a document that laid out much of the city we know today and attempted to figure out, in Smith’s words, whether cities could “be transformed into more orderly, beautiful, and humane settings without stifling the energies that propelled them.” In explaining how Burnham’s plan originated, Smith also demonstrates just how relevant it continues to be.

  1. Gentrifier by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill

“It’s a more nuanced take on what it means to join an existing community—a topic that’s been explored here at Curbed as well—and buoyed by the hopeful thought that there is a way to be a “better gentrifier.” In a way, Gentrifier is the most self-aware… addressing the hypocritical nature of gentrifiers talking gentrification, but humanizing the issue with the three authors’ raw, vulnerable personal accounts of building lives in a city.” —Mansplaining the city

  1. Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now—As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor

A Studs Terkel-esque examination of Britain’s capital, this sprawling series of interviews captures the grit and glamor of 21st-century urban life. Taylor spent five years and 300 tape-recorder batteries documenting every corner of London, and his persistence and love for the city shine through.

  1. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie

“How do small city-planning decisions reverberate in our personal lives? Waldie’s meditation on suburbia finds the beauty in wonky detail and weaves a wholly unconventional narrative. I’d put this book up against the best of Baudrillard and Banham.” —Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. The World

  1. Detroit Anthology edited by Anna Clark

“A book by and for the people of Detroit, editor Anna Clark paints a complete picture of what life is like in Detroit by providing a platform for both lifelong and new residents of the Motor City to tell their stories, whether negative or positive or somewhere in between.” —Sally Kuchar, former cities director, Curbed

  1. Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B. Williams

The city of Seattle is a study in geological extremes, matched only by the engineering ambitions of its residents. Williams’ look at Seattle’s topographical history is especially relevant as the city takes on herculean new infrastructure projects to remake itself once again.

  1. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Hollywood native Eve Babitz published her first two books of memoirish fiction in the 1970s, but her work has been essentially lost to the cultural memory for decades. It’s being found again (via reissues by New York Review Books), just in time, when Angelenos are tired of the dour Joan Didion view of our city. Babitz knows all of LA’s faults, but she’d rather spend her energy ecstatic with its easy pace, surreal juxtapositions, and natural and unnatural beauty. It has to be mentioned that Babitz’s godfather was Igor Stravinsky; that she is the girl playing chess nude with Marcel Duchamp in the famous photo; and that she’s slept with Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Ed Ruscha, and Harrison Ford, but all that’s just bait—it’s the prose, like diamond-encrusted barbed wire, that hooks you.” —Adrian Glick Kudler, former west coast features editor, Curbed

How to find these books

For consistency, we’ve included the Amazon link for each title, where you can buy hardback, paperback, used books, e-book, and audio versions (if available). But there are plenty of other ways to read these books.

IndieBound helps you find books at local independent bookstores

WorldCat is a good way to search for books in the nearest library

Kindle offers the most comprehensive e-book catalog

iBooks may have some titles in Apple’s e-book library

Designers and Books has a great list of architecture and design bookstores nationwide

  1. Cool Gray City of Love by Gary Kamiya

“One day author Gary Kamiya decided to break up Golden Gate Park’s 1,017 acres into rough grids and start walking it. He learned so much through this exploration that he expanded to the entire city, walking or biking down every single street in its 7×7 square miles. The result is a 360-page tour of San Francisco, from its most known peaks to areas that the city’s most notable historians haven’t uncovered.” —Sally Kuchar, former cities director, Curbed

  1. Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family by Gary Pomerantz

In his elegant exploration of race relations in the South, Pomerantz traces the histories of two Atlanta families—one black, one white—who lived in dramatically different cities but whose fates intertwined throughout history.

  1. Best Addresses by James Goode

“This is the quintessential architectural bible for Washington, D.C. In this publication, Goode chronicles the built history of the nation’s capital, from its more well known to its lesser known buildings. It is an incredibly well researched publication with a myriad of photographs and an inviting writing style.” —Michelle Goldchain, former editor, Curbed DC

  1. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

Joseph Mitchell is best known for his New Yorker profiles of the sorts of New York City residents who are rarely profiled, and this volume collects much of his work. Mitchell’s pieces often covered disappearing corners of New York, and his writing inspired preservationists to fight for the protection of the city’s history.

  1. Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt

A series of explorations and essays on the subterranean, Will Hunt’s book reads like a New Yorker story mixed with a David Macauly illustration—and gets to the heart of why we’re fascinated with the underground. Hunt’s travelogue deftly escorts readers through subways, Parisian catacombs, and prehistoric caves, capturing the wonder inherent in each.

  1. Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

“I worry about living in a world where people are not oriented. A world full of semi-zombied people who have never actually gotten down the block, don’t know where any of their friends live, don’t know where the fire station and the hospital are, because they have always had a phone running interference, and they have always obeyed the dictates of a machine.” —Interview with the author on Curbed NY, see also her San Francisco and New Orleans atlases

  1. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham

“I cannot tell you how important this book was to me when I moved to LA in 1990. Like so many transplants, I was so absolutely enthralled with the city and drunk with sun and freedom, having just landed from grey and uptight Milan.” —Paola Antonelli, senior curator, Architecture & Design, The Museum of Modern Art

  1. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

“People often needle me: ‘LA’s back, dude, can’t you smile?’ Well, a sense of crisis was the best ally we had.” —Email exchange between the author and Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne on Curbed LA

  1. A History of New York in 101 Objects by Sam Roberts

“Building off a New York Times feature that solicited reader input on the tchotchkes that best represent New York, Roberts’s 2014 book is a compact, yet thorough, history of the greatest city in the world. The objects featured are wonderfully diverse—oysters, subway tokens, the Domino Sugar Refinery sign, and the bagel all make appearances—and the stories are compulsively readable. It’s proof that you don’t need to read a dense, 1,000-page book to get a sense of what makes a city a city. I love you, Robert Caro, but…” —Amy Plitt, editor, Curbed NY

  1. Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words by Wendy MacNaughton

Part guidebook, part ethnographic study, MacNaughton’s illustrated guide to the city chronicles a day in its life, from how citizens use the public library to a watercolor breakdown of the city’s unofficial favorite food (the burrito). Every page of this book is worthy of being framed and hung as informative, civic-minded art.

  1. Berlin Childhood Around 1900 by Walter Benjamin

“An essential companion on my own daily wanderings, after I moved to an apartment not very far from where Benjamin lived, this extraordinary, episodic, labyrinthine reconstruction of an emerging, soon-to-be-lost metropolis was written in the 1930s, when Benjamin had already fled Germany and could sense what was coming. The work is a love letter tossed into the void, a sweet lamentation, personal and civic, and an attempt to retrieve what time steals but words and stones can save.” —Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic, New York Times

  1. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Writer Sarah Broom grew up in a shotgun house in New Orleans East, the yellow house that gives her memoir its title. The house is Broom’s vehicle for exploring the history of not only her family but also of New Orleans, particularly the neighborhood of New Orleans East.

  1. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

“A whole neighborhood wiped out and replaced with a housing development advertised for its view of the Dominguez Flood Channel. The centuries-old myth that California is really an island. A golden fang-shaped building that rises out of Sunset Boulevard seemingly overnight. And an all-powerful blue blood cabal that maintains an iron grip on Los Angeles’s ‘real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor.’ All pieces of the conspiracy found in the smoke as the 1960s go up in flames in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. This is one of Pynchon’s easiest reads, but still exquisite and hilarious.” —Adrian Glick Kudler, former west coast features editor, Curbed

  1. Playground of My Mind by Julia Jacquette

Artist Julia Jacquette grew up playing at the modernist adventure playgrounds of 1960s and 1970s Manhattan. These playgrounds were formative for Jacquette as an artist, and in Playground of My Mind, she returns to what she learned from their shapes, forms, and patterns.

  1. Detroit: The Dream Is Now by Michel Arnaud

Sometimes it takes an outsider to appreciate a city’s true beauty. This book-length appreciation of Detroit’s current wave of development, done with considerable style by a French photographer, doesn’t traffic in trite images or wonder if the city may “bounce back.” Taking Detroit as it is now, a dynamic, multi-faceted city, this collection of photos and essays offers plenty of insight and inspiration.

  1. Midwest Architecture Journeys edited by Zach Mortice

In a region where man-in-diner dispatches from out-of-town reporters pass for political analysis, it’s no surprise national design and architecture coverage often comes from bemused outsiders with no real background. This vital collection of essays, which tackles everything from the work of local eccentrics such as Bruce Goff to eccentric local works such as Minneapolis’s underground architecture, tells poignant and personal stories of a region too often overlooked by outsiders.

  1. Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young

Young’s tale of returning to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, couldn’t be more timely, and not just because of the city’s ongoing infrastructure crisis. Equal parts entertaining and engaging, Young’s story of leaving the San Francisco bubble for the Rust Belt showcases people and perspectives who are often left out.

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” announced Howard Cosell during the 1977 World Series, and thrust the crime wave eviscerating New York City’s northernmost borough into the international spotlight. Mahler’s book skillfully intertwines the year’s two most riveting battles—a pennant race and a mayoral race—that ended up shaping the city’s future.

  1. Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to the Live in the New Urban America by Randy Shaw

This city-by-city examination of the nation’s spreading affordability problem shows how long commutes, housing instability, and decentralized communities have become national issues. According to author Randy Shaw, the housing problems now evident in San Francisco may soon be everywhere without a serious reconsideration of housing costs.

  1. Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas

“An incredible deep-dive into how the changes in the Boston region and in the City of Boston in particular in the 1960s and 1970s impacted the lives of the people who lived through them. More than that, though, it is a tale of how the urban landscape—the very idea of what it meant to live in a major American city—morphed during that period; and how that change set the table for the rebound in urban living, for better or worse, we’re experiencing today.” —Tom Acitelli, editor, Curbed Boston

  1. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Why do Americans cities look the way they do? Almost every physical, social, and economic reality in the present-day U.S. can be traced to deliberate decisions made by the federal government that segregated neighborhoods, discriminated against people of color, and financially ravaged underserved communities.

  1. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community  by Herbert Gans

After living in the famous New Jersey suburb for two years in the 1960s, the sociologist drew different conclusions than almost every other writer on these homogenized communities: “Suburban life has produced more family cohesion and a significant boost in morale through the reduction of boredom and loneliness.”

  1. Where I Was From by Joan Didion

“The most trenchant passages for me concern Lakewood, California—the massive prefabricated suburb nicknamed the ‘Levittown of the West’—and how the mostly white, mostly working-class community gradually becomes unglued by the closure of the local aerospace factories in the early 1990s. ‘What does it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class,’ Didion asks rhetorically. ‘Who pays? Who benefits? What happens when that class stops being useful? What does it mean to drop back below the line?’” —Greg Lindsay, senior fellow, the New Cities Foundation

  1. Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James T. Murphy and Karla L. Murphy

Beyond the quaint graphics, hand-made signs, and charming staff, independent storefronts give us a connection to our shared history, serving as physical representations of the immigrant struggle to gain a foothold. This rich visual survey of mom-and-pop New York, filled with large format photos, shows why these corner spots are vital to our city’s character.

  1. The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

“Although this non-fiction masterpiece reads like a fast-paced thriller, it provides a captivating look at the real-life drama that encapsulated the Chicago World Fair of 1893. It’s a snapshot into how world fairs remade urban centers, and an essential part of Chicago history.” —Megan Barber, contributor, Curbed

  1. Radical Suburbs by Amanda Kolson Hurley

Americans have certain ideas about suburbia. But the suburbs aren’t a monolith, and as Amanda Kolson Hurley shows in Radical Suburbs, they never have been. This engaging book highlights suburbs that go against our stereotypical images of the suburbs in design and social mission.

  1. Magnetic City by Justin Davidson

A look at how New York’s streetscape has been “battered, doubted, cursed, and loathed, only to battle its way back to glamour,” this guidebook to the city’s new gilded age, arranged as a series of walks, is the closest one may get to having an architecture critic provide a private, off-the-cuff tour.

  1. Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places by Jeff Speck

The practical companion to Speck’s popular Walkable City book gives cities a 101-point checklist for making streets more safe, vibrant, and welcoming to people.

  1. Never Built New York/Never Built Los Angeles by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell

These surveys of hundreds of projects that were planned but never realized in the U.S.’s two largest cities hold the key to greener, more livable urban futures—and provide a sense of relief that some of these never became reality.

  1. Cities for People by Jan Gehl

The Danish urban designer’s world-famous aesthetic comes to life in this exuberant textbook for how to retrofit our cities into places that people want to be.

  1. Robot, Take the Wheel: The Road to Autonomous Cars and the Lost Art of Driving by Jason Torchinsky

Everything you wanted to know about autonomous vehicles but were afraid to ask. This delightfully written book by the longtime Jalopnik contributor is an essential guide to how driverless vehicles work—and how they have the potential to dramatically reshape society.

  1. Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow

The legendary New York City Department of Transportation head tells the stories behind some of the celebrated—and extremely controversial—urban planning decisions that remade the city for people, block-by-block. New York’s plaza conversions, parklets, and expanding bike network have since been emulated round the world.

  1. Cities That Think like Planets: Complexity, Resilience, and Innovation in Hybrid Ecosystems by Marina Alberti

Alberti offers a fresh take on how cities can safeguard themselves against the effects of climate change by offering an ecological approach to urban planning, encouraging urban metropolises to become self-sufficient, hyper-resilient megaregions.

  1. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner

Written long before the current drought gripping the West, this is a frighteningly prescient look at how the scarcity of water will dictate the social, political, and economic destiny for some of the most populous cities in the country.

  1. Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson

Cities everywhere are seeing the benefits of a forest canopy and wildlife corridors. Johnson’s book offers a detailed guide for how city-dwellers can get in touch with the other local residents that might populate a typical block.

  1. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace Wells

If that New York Magazine story didn’t scare you enough, try reading an entire book on the worst-case scenarios that climate change will almost inevitably unleash—and why it’s not too late to change course.

  1. Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac

In a way, it’s the quintessential startup saga—no tech company in recent memory has experienced such dizzying highs and crushing lows. But the rise and fall of the ride-hailing company is also a cautionary tale that reveals the grave missteps of urban transportation over the last decade.

  1. Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities by Ryan Gravel

“This is the great story of the Atlanta Beltline. It’s always changing. But the original vision that we built with the public is still at its core. It’s organized around neighborhood conservation, transit, trails, and economic development. It has now expanded into something we could never have imagined in the beginning—hundreds of acres of new parks, thousands of units of workforce housing, public health and employment initiatives, a linear arboretum, public art and preservation efforts, to name just a few. The idea continues to grow.” —Interview with the author on Curbed Atlanta

  1. Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run and Win the Fight for Effective Transit by Steven Higashide

From ballot measures to bus-only lanes, the research director from the national advocacy nonprofit TransitCenter delivers timely, inspiring stories of the ways cities are putting transit first.

  1. Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution by Beth Gardiner

Roughly 100,000 Americans die each year due to the health impacts of air pollution, more than the number who die from car crashes and gun violence combined. Journalist Beth Gardiner’s sobering and deft analysis of the modern manifestations of pollution offers a vital window onto one of the defining urban issues of our time.

  1. No Small Plans by the Chicago Architecture Foundation

Inspired by Wacker’s Manual, a 1911 textbook meant to teach Chicago students about Daniel Burnham’s famous Plan of Chicago, the Chicago Architecture Foundation put together No Small Plans, a graphic novel about local teens designing the city. The foundation is aiming to give 30,000 copies of the book to Chicago teens over the next three years.

 

  1. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The past is a prologue to understanding our country’s racial wealth and homeownership gaps. Taylor, a professor and historian, exposes the rank hypocrisy and racism behind a Great Society program that, rather than accomplishing its goal of increasing black homeownership, allowed a corrupt real estate industry to mistreat buyers of color for profit.

  1. Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America by Beryl Satter

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant dissertation on race, reparations, and the horrors of redlining and segregation in cities owes a debt to this groundbreaking work. Charting Chicago’s institutionalized racism, and the profiteering that followed in its wake, Satter draws from poignant personal stories—including those of her father, a crusading attorney who fought discrimination—to explain how so many cities ended up so separate and unequal.

  1. The Extra Woman by Joanna Scutts

In 1936, Vogue staffer Marjorie Hillis published Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman. Hillis’s guide to the delights of living alone launched a movement—and as the number of Live-Aloners rises once again, Scutts’s in-depth look at Hillis’s work and life makes for particularly relevant reading.

  1. Material World: A Global Family Portrait edited by Peter Menzel

“Material World documents families from around the world with a single photograph of all they own. From the USA to Bhutan, you understand the full human contact of what we own and who we are.” —Jake Barton, principal, Local Projects

  1. Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appealof Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg

More than one-quarter of U.S. households are home to just one person, representing a major demographic shift. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg explains how this change occurred, and repudiates the idea that people who live alone aren’t actively engaged in their neighborhoods.

  1. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is a Philadelphia home that Cyril Conroy loves and his wife hates—and it’s where Danny Conroy, the narrator of the novel, grows up until his stepmother kicks him out. The Dutch House remains at the center of Danny’s and his sister Maeve’s imaginations for years after they leave it, and their attachment to the house shapes their relationships and choices.

  1. Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai by Qiu Xiaolong

“This is a collection of linked short stories…about the lives of several generations of occupants of Red Dust Lane, a small street in the center of Shanghai, made up of two-story houses each with a ‘stone doorframe and small courtyard.’ From this eloquent book I learned not only about 50 years of modern Chinese history but also about how the residents adapt their lives to overcrowded homes and their congenial and vibrant shared ‘lane.’ It’s a wonderful example of fiction explaining and bringing alive the urban fabric.” —Frances Anderton, host and executive producer, KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture

  1. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

The mass rural-to-urban migration of African-Americans in the 20th century reshaped not just U.S. cities, but American culture. This Pultizer Prize-winning account, which zeroes in on the tales of three people’s journeys, makes the profound shift personal.

  1. Another Country by James Baldwin

“For the ways it explored race, sexuality, and class, this was a groundbreaking book for a number of reasons. But Baldwin’s lush language evokes New York City (and 1950s Greenwich Village, specifically) in a way few other works of art have accomplished. Baldwin also gets light very right in this book: the dimness of a bar, the glare of a streetlamp, the way light erupts from an open door out into a dark street. It’s subtle and powerful.” —Asad Syrkett, former deputy editor, Curbed

  1. Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles by Jonathan Gold

Los Angeles lost one of its most eloquent advocates when the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic died in 2018. Although some of the restaurants in his landmark 2001 guide are no longer around, the prose remains timeless, as does Gold’s recommendation to explore a city through its neighborhood ethnic eateries, one bowl of strip-mall birria at a time.

  1. All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

With the news that her father, maybe-shady real estate developer Victor Tuchman, is on his deathbed, Alex arrives in New Orleans hoping to find out more about his past. While Alex doesn’t immediately find answers, Attenberg takes readers into the heads of her family members and their New Orleans neighbors, slowly revealing both the family’s complicated history and the many facets of the city.

  1. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai’s acclaimed novel about the AIDS crisis is also very much a novel about Chicago. Makkai writes about what it was like to be in the city’s Boystown neighborhood, in particular, as AIDS hit, and how that period of the city’s history is layered beneath its present.

  1. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

“I read Randy Shilts’s thick, complex and, as we would say today, ‘deeply reported’ book about the first five years of the AIDS epidemic in college, and it taught me about three different peoples I had not encountered before. I looked outside the university in New Haven and volunteered with an organization that brought food, medical care, and companionship to people with HIV. I understood the potential of journalism (and journalists) to reveal hidden truths. And I felt anger at a scientific establishment that had let people die because of their own prejudices.” —Alexandra Lange, architecture critic, Curbed

  1. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study by W.E.B. Dubois

“W.E.B. Dubois’ The Philadelphia Negro was the first case study on a black community in the U.S. One Curbed reader said it best when he wrote, ‘It’s on the heavy side,’ but it ‘grounded me and reminds me that we live in a history-rich city.’” —Melissa Romero, former editor, Curbed Philly

  1. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel

“The apex of Chicago broadcaster Studs Terkel’s ‘man on the street’ style of interviewing, this collection of conversations elevates the everyday story. Mechanics, telephone operators, private investigators: every working part in the big machine of urban life gets showcased, appreciated, and celebrated.” —Patrick Sisson, senior editor, Curbed

  1. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

In Milwaukee, two landlords rent to the eight families profiled in this book. All are paying significant percentages of their incomes on rent, struggling to cover basic expenses, and their experiences are representative of a much larger problem: millions of Americans are evicted every year.

  1. Building the Cycle City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality by Chris and Melissa Bruntlett

Improvements for cyclists in the car-centric U.S. are often met with a chorus of “We’re not Amsterdam”—well, neither was Amsterdam, at one time. The Bruntletts, who author the popular Modacity blog, explore the social, cultural, and infrastructural transformations that the Dutch championed during the last 50 years to become one of the top countries for biking in the world.

  1. Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers by Jason M. Barr

“Supertall buildings are not a cause of high housing prices but rather are a result of it. That is to say, as the demand to live and invest in the city has increased so dramatically over the last decade or so, it has caused land and housing prices to rise throughout the city.” —Interview with the author on Curbed

  1. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro

Wrapped into this biography of New York’s most powerful urban sculptor are plenty of lessons for how not to build infrastructure.

  1. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism by Stephen Graham

“An enlightening overview of the security state’s impact on contemporary cities, from overt authoritarian control in war-torn areas to more subtle forms of behavioral influence in places supposedly at peace. Graham shows how military/police/security forces perceive urban places and urban dwellers as subjects to control, and how their inherently undemocratic tactics threaten freedom all over the world.” —Nate Berg, journalist and Curbed contributor

  1. The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure by Henry Petroski

A distressing call to modernize our failing—well, D-minus rated—infrastructure that’s even more relevant as the many federal plans to fix it come into question.

  1. Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design by Bess Williamson

Historian Bess Williamson’s look at how designers and those with disabilities came up with creative solutions to navigating a nation with an incomplete safety net offers a critical perspective on how true freedom of movement for all is limited in the so-called land of the free.

  1. Our Towns: A 100,000-mile journey into the heart of America by Deborah and James Fallows

An important corrective to tales of rural decline, government gridlock, and a lost sense of common purpose, this travelogue explores a new generation of grassroots community building in small cities and towns. Reported over multiple years as the authors literally flew over flyover states in a small plane, Our Towns shows that some of the most exciting examples of urban renewal are happening far from big cities.

  1. Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

“This young adult memoir about life at a Japanese-American internment camp may be the way most Americans of a certain age learned about this particularly dark, and now terribly relevant, episode in our history. The clear, detailed account of daily life in the camps is tremendously memorable, and I’ve found scenes coming back to me repeatedly as I study American modernism and its cross-currents with Japanese design and culture. In January the Noguchi Museum will open an exhibition about one of those connections: Isamu Noguchi’s hard-to-fathom self-internment in Arizona and his subsequent disillusionment with the United States.” —Alexandra Lange, architecture critic, Curbed

  1. The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream by Courtney E. Martin

“The American dream is evolving to be about building communities of mutual interdependence—not to mention joy—and finding work that is meaningful and flexible.” —Interview with the author on Curbed

  1. The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life by Jonathan F. P. Rose

An excellent exploration of how science and technology are intertwining to remake our city streets, from the refreshing perspective of a celebrated developer.

  1. Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam

A deft dissection of social capital and community in the United States that has sadly become more relevant over time, this sociological survey of our fraying connections seems prescient during a period of great divisions. A stark reminder that a decline in civic involvement makes us less civil, this book is filled with important observations and lessons about how the country can get involved again and reach across our many divides.

  1. Your local newspaper

Okay, it’s not a book. But local newspapers employ the writers who will author the next great book we add to this list. Take a moment to purchase a subscription to a paper or digital news outlet near you—or, perhaps, nowhere near you—and get to know a place from the inside out, in real time.