Roundup: Four More Urbanist Books to Read for the Holidays

Plenty of worthy books about urbanism came out in 2013, many of which we never got around to reviewing.

An illustration from Never Build Los Angeles.

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Here at the Book Club we covered 14 books in 2013 and talked to all kinds of people about the topics therein. In many cases, we talked to the authors themselves. We noticed a few trends, such as broad survey books that cover the big picture of urbanism. Personally I was most drawn to those that zeroed in on one city, though not always.

My favorite book to read this year was Daniel Brook’s A History of Future Cities. The interview I most enjoyed was talking to Thomas Dyja about The Third Coast. And the review that proved the most fun to write? Taking down Meredith Whitney’s The Fate of the States.

Plenty of worthy books about urbanism came out in 2013, many of which we never got around to reviewing. Below, we provide short rundowns of four titles we missed.

Deventer, by Matthew Stadler (NAI 010)

In Deventer, novelist Matthew Stadler tells the story of a large-scale redevelopment project that has broad implications for the titular Dutch city. It follows the director of a local hospital system, who owns an obsolete building and the large parcel of land on which it sits. The hospital could sell and make a large profit, but the director knows that the land would then fill up with cookie-cutter homes. Instead, he enlists architect Matthijs Bouw to make a new plan for the site, one that will benefit the whole town while giving the hospital needed income. Bouw cuts a deal with the city saying that any developer who buys the plot and executes his plan will have the project fast tracked.

NAI 010 publishes a lot of art books, and it shows in this volume. Each chapter begins with a beautiful watercolor. The text allows itself to breathe as it meanders through its subject, with detours into the history of Dutch architecture and planning. The real-life characters are drawn in detail and their relationships traced back to their beginnings. If the book fails in any way, it’s that life rarely follows the neat arcs of novels. By the end, you don’t really quite know what will happen with the project — only that the developer is balking at the deal.

Stadler also falls down a bit at the critical juncture. The legal structure of what the developer has (or hasn’t) agreed to is hard to follow, and Stadler walks away from this tension the moment he introduces it, shifting his focus instead to another project of Bouw’s. That said, you learn from Bouw along the way that the journey in a project is as important as the outcome, so maybe it doesn’t matter that we don’t know if his plan got executed as it should.

A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, by Vishaan Chakrabarti, with illustrations by SHoP Architects (Metropolis Books)

This is one of the most designed books I’ve ever read. It has 228 pages of text, though much of it is given over to enormous infographics and two-page pullquotes. All the graphic work comes from SHoP Architects, who did a remarkable job. And SHoP stands to gain quite a bit if Chakrabarti’s thesis wins more favor. This is not just a book about the happiness of cities. It’s about as many people as possible living as close together as they can — real, serious, Manhattan-like density, the kind of density from which SHoP makes its income. (These are the architects behind, for example, the high rises planned to go up behind Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.)

Chakrabarti’s idea is that if everyone, or at least vastly more people, lived at much greater density, we’d all be happier and more productive and could let the natural world get back to restoring itself. Yet it’s hard to stomach both his naiveté — he spends whole chapters writing as if he’s simply baffled that the U.S. doesn’t have Tokyo-style trains — as well as his stridency. There’s zero patience here for anything but hyperdensity, dismissing all the great cities of Europe with a stroke.

Personally, I found reason to be skeptical of Chakrabarti’s broad generalizations. For instance, he takes aim at environmentalists for their supposed hostility to cities. This is very strange. I spent four years working for a major environmental organization and was in regular contact with all the rest of them. You’d be hard pressed to find an environmental group that isn’t strongly urbanist. So if Chakrabarti is so wrong about the green community — and he’s way off base — I had to wonder what other groups he mischaracterized.

He does raise this important point, though, which gives city advocates a hard time: How do you get more people into a city, broadly, while compromising with the specific sacrifices caused by any given development?

Black Picket Fences, Second Edition, by Mary Pattillo (University of Chicago)

Black Picket Fences is a reissue. Pattillo completed her research for the first volume in 1999, and recently revisited her subject in order to issue this update, with an extended afterword where she catches us up with some of its characters.

Pattillo, a sociologist, takes as her subject the Groveland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Her original volume dealt with the pressure of white racism to keep upwardly mobile blacks out of white areas, which meant that the African-American middle class stayed intermingled with low-income people. As such, middle-class black children grow up in a milieu where the temptation to engage in destructive activities is considerably more acute and multi-faceted than it is on white children, making it less likely for black children to reproduce their parents’ success. Or, as Pattillo puts it, “The in-between position of the black middle class sets up certain crossroads for its youth.”

No doubt many sociologists would quibble with some part of that statement. The book is powerful, though, in the way that Pattillo carefully balances her qualitative fieldwork with supplemental observations from quantitative literature on the same subject. Readers will also appreciate the way she doesn’t mince words. (“Liberals bumble when addressing these realities…”)

In her follow-up, though, we find that an interesting shift has taken place. In 1999 Pattillo argued that profound segregation in housing makes it harder for black children to build on their parents’ achievements. However, in the second edition we learn two things: That very few of the characters Pattillo followed in her fieldwork have taken the wrong road and, apparently, something really has started to shift. The numbers show that U.S. cities have become markedly less segregated than they were in 1999. Time will tell what that means. Hopefully, it’s a good sign for everyone.

Never Built Los Angeles, by Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin (Metropolis Books)

This is a bitter book, and also a lot of fun. Chronicling ambitious plans for L.A. that never got executed, the authors ask, “So what is about Los Angels that fosters so many imaginative, potentially transformative public-realm projects — good and bad — yet simultaneously quashes them?” Opinions abound on that score. So many, in fact, that the authors combed through the archives and came up with nearly 400 pages’ worth of fleshed-out ideas never realized in the home of Hollywood.

They include a skyscraper with its foundation in the ocean, movie theaters out of some sort of Art Deco sci-fi film, a downtown by Frank Lloyd Wright that looks fit for the Holy Roman Empire circa 1960, and a plan for Sunset Mountain that looks like a pen-and-ink drawing by a masterful Buddhist monk. Readers will learn of architects who saw the commuter problem clearly in 1977 and of Pierre Koenig’s austere Hollywood Mosque. These are pages filled with what might have been and the stories of why they weren’t.

Like long-lost romantic partners, what might have been is never that profitable to dwell on. Except, in this case, it does illustrate how L.A.’s political system has limited its capacity to live up to its people’s exceptional potential.

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Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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