9 Books to Help You Plan Your City

Essential Reference Books For Urban Planning, Urban Design, and New Urbanism

Since the mid nineteen-eighties, a new breed of designers, the New Urbanists, have been proposing ways to minimize sprawl and create "people-friendly" communities. Much has been written about New Urbanism, pro and con. Here are our favorite texts about New Urbanism and Urban Design, beginning with the classic text by urban design pioneer Jane Jacobs.

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

black and white historic photo of Jane Jacobs holding up a document
Activist, writer, and urbanist Jane Jacobs c. 1961. Photo by Phil Stanziola, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress LC-USZ-62-137839 (cropped)

When Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) published this book in 1992, she changed the way we think about urban planning. Decades later, the text is a classic. A must read for architects, urban planners, and anyone concerned with city revitalization.

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The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape

Author James Howard Kunstler in 2015
Author James Howard Kunstler in 2015. Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Journalist and fiction writer James Howard Kunstler became the guru for New Urbanism when he wrote this 1993 bestselling study of encroaching ugliness in America. Kunstler argues that much of the American landscape has become ugly, empty, and not worth caring about. The solution? Pattern American cities and towns after villages from days gone by.

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Suburban Nation

Elizabeth Platzer-Zyberk and Andres Duany in 1999
Elizabeth Platzer-Zyberk and Andres Duany in 1999. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

 Armed with dozens of photos and caustic wit, authors Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck bombard us with darkly comical factoids about the decline of our cities and the spread of sprawl.

  • The average American household takes 13 car trips per day.
  • American families spend four times more than European families on transportation.
  • Suburbanites are more likely than city dwellers to be killed or injured by traffic accidents or crime.
  • Traffic gets worse—not better—when roads are widened.

It's an architectural version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wide highways, large single-family lots and long tedious commutes have become the dominant pattern in the United States. Our neighborhoods are being replaced by soulless alien substitutes. Instead of corner stores, we have Quick Marts. Instead of Main Streets, we have Mega Malls. Fast-food architecture—McMansions—sit forlornly along monotonous cul-de-sacs.

Subtitled The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, the book is not merely a dewy-eyed idealization of old-fashioned neighborhood models or a condemnation of Wal-Mart. Instead, the authors identify specific problems—and achievable solutions, complete with checklists, planning guides and resources. Originally published in 2000.

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Walkable City

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck
Walkable City by Jeff Speck. Image courtesy Amazon.com (cropped)

"I didn't move to the city to be a suburban commuter," said the wife of city planner . So he wrote a book. Subtitled How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Speck's book was first published in 2012. I first heard about Walkable City from National Public Radio, in a piece called What Makes A City 'Walkable' And Why It Matters. Since then, urbanist Speck has given a to help inform people about the problems of cities and suburbs. Speck is also the co-author of the "sprawl book," Suburban Nation.

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Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture

Viva Las Vegas, After Hours Architecture (book cover)
Viva Las Vegas, After Hours Architecture. Image courtesy Amazon.com

Here's the compelling tale of a city that evolved—almost miraculously - in a desert wasteland. Six architectural eras are analyzed, with lavish color photos. In its celebration of architectural anarchy, this slim book provides an interesting counterpoint to New Urbanist thought. By Alan Hess.

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The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community

The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community
The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community. Book cover image courtesy Amazon.com

Tips and techniques for architects and planning professionals, with 180 photographs, site plans, and project renderings. This 1993 book published by McGraw-Hill has become a classic—not just for the pros, but for anyone concerned about suburban sprawl. By Peter Katz and Vincent Scully.

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Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States

Illustration of iron gated community from the book Fortress America by Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder
Fortress America By Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder. Cropped image courtesy Amazon.com

By Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder. Both authors are professors of urban and regional planning, but this study of America's enclosed communities is not just for academics. Only 208 pages long, the book paints a disturbing picture of a nation where the affluent barricade themselves behind the locked gates of exclusive neighborhoods.

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Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown

Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown
Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown. Book cover crop courtesy Amazon.com

This recipe for urban revitalization argues against large, grandiose projects. In 2000 Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz offered tales of many urban success stories and suggested that the solution for struggling cities is to encourage modest, organic growth, small businesses, and public spaces.

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Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century

Home from Nowhere Remaking Our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century
Home from Nowhere Remaking Our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century. Image crop courtesy Amazon.com

In 1998 author James Howard Kunstler continued the attack on modernist architecture and urban sprawl—and proposes tax and zoning reforms