The Best Books of 2016 for Urbanists


Have some time off this holiday season? Curl up with one of these engaging reads.


Have some time off this holiday season? Curl up with one of these engaging reads.

In Street Fight, Janette Sadik-Khan argues that remaking our cities into spaces that are built for people and not just cars requires a combination of visionary leadership, committed citizen advocacy, and a willingness from all parties to be inventive and experimental. With examples drawn mainly from her time as New York City’s Transportation Commissioner, Sadik-Khan shows that this potent approach can help cities rethink and reinvigorate their streets. The process is far from easy, with politics, profit, and questions about who has a right to use the street bubbling up time and time again. But despite the headaches, the labor is worth it, she argues. New York's new streets and pedestrian plazas have been a boon to many neighborhoods and provided New Yorkers with many more options on how to safely get around. Street Fight (subtitled Handbook for an Urban Revolution) is an attempt to share the lessons Sadik-Khan and her constituents learned as they pushed through the effort. -- Kyle Shelton

In telling the story of disparity, recent titles have documented how racially restrictive covenants and redlining shaped geographies and destinies. But two processes in particular continue to feed into inequalities: mass incarceration, which has been the subject of several critically-acclaimed books in recent years, and eviction. In the masterful Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, writes, "If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women." Desmond immersed himself in the poor black and white neighborhoods of Milwaukee to examine not only how eviction fueled poverty but how it created profit. Both qualitative and quantitative deep dives inform this incredibly powerful narrative that reveals the complicated web of policy that drives eviction, from voucher holders being charged more for similar units when compared to unassisted renters to the "nuisance" fines that push landlords to punish tenants who call the police for help due to domestic violence. If you only have time for one book, make it this one. -- Leah Binkovitz

Few words are as loaded in American politics as "ghetto." In his comprehensive Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, The History of an Idea, Mitchell Duneier explains how the term migrated from Venice to America's inner cities over a 500-year history. Duneier, a sociologist at Princeton University, wrote the book because he said his students did not know the origins of the word ghetto, which first appeared in Venice in 1516. Much of the book, however, spends time in the 20th century when academics in the United States began using the term that had described segregated Jewish neighborhoods into World War II and applying it to America's black urban neighborhoods, born out of the Great Migration. Duneier navigates the world of academia to examine how research connected to policy and shaped public opinion, highlighting the work of scholars who each took a different approach to describing the conditions and causes of the ghetto. "We're at a point today where the symbolism of the ghetto being about control as much as about separation and segregation is extremely important," said Duneier in an interview. In plotting the development of the word, Duneier provides a blueprint to unpack a word that still informs public conversation today. -- Leah Binkovitz

Ryan Gravel rose to national prominence as the mastermind behind Atlanta's highly-praised BeltLine, a which has been hailed as "one of the boldest sustainability projects in Urban America." As the Sun Belt's answer to New York's famed High Line, the project transformed more than 20 miles of railroad tracks around Atlanta into a connected trail system that meanders through parks and neighborhoods, forming a loop around downtown. In his new book Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities Hardcover, Gravel, an urban planner, tells the story of the BeltLine but also highlights other similar revitalizations in unlikely places, including Houston's own work along Buffalo Bayou. The book makes the case that cities don't have to be confined to sprawl and can proactively pursue big, ambitious projects to reshape their future. -- Ryan Holeywell

In What Makes a Great City, urban planner and architect Alexander Garvin argues that, above all else, it's the way we build in the public realm that helps determine whether a place is truly spectacular. The book chronicles Garvin's two-year quest to answer its titular question. What emerges is a love letter to what Garvin considers the most beautiful, interesting, and engaging public places in the world, from New York's Bryant Park to Vienna's Kärntner Straße, and everything in between. Rather than just fawn over them, Garvin clearly articulates the precise -- and often hidden reasons -- those places work, whether its the orientation of St. Petersburg's street grid towards its Admiralty building, or how seemingly minute elements of a sidewalk in Amsterdam can activate it into a popular public space. What makes a great city, Garvin ultimately concludes, isn't just aesthetics: its the city's ability to evolve and adapt. "A great city, unlike a great painting or sculpture, is not an equisite, complete artifact," Gravin writes. "They make the changes they need." -- Ryan Holeywell

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