Introduction to Urban Planning: Books, Pamphlets, and Tweets

On Aug 4, 2010, at 4:20 PM, Professor Johanna W. Looye posted this message to the Planet (academic urban planning) listserv (which for some good reason you must be a member of to reach the archives):
I hope this is a good summertime discussion question….  I had an inquiry from an incoming student on what she should read before she begins her master’s program in the fall.

My first suggestion was to brush up on statistics.

My second was to find a mystery set in a particular city. (Margaret Truman’s Washington DC mysteries came to mind.)

My third was simply to read something beautiful enough to make her cry or laugh out loud.

What would you recommend? Care to explain why?

Johanna W. Looye, Ph.D.
School of Planning/College of DAAP
University of Cincinnati

There were many terrific responses, including side analyses, such as of newspapers as useful but problematic sources for introductory planning debates.  It is a fun exchange and a nice distraction to ponder, and as good an excuse as any to slap together a blog entry on the topic.

I only plan to mention things here that were not already mention on the Planet listserv to supplement that exchange.  But it got long enough to put here.  Still, it is by construction rather incomplete.

To start, I find it useful to group such introductory materials as either (a) urban planning as a field, or (b) cities in general or in particular, or then (c) as prep for the study of planning and cities.

(a) Just as a starting point, I tend to recommend Guide to California Planning, by Bill Fulton and Paul Shigley (any edition though they’d prefer you buy the latest and biggest).  It sounds state-centric and can be, unless planning in other states also deals with negotiating growth profiles, environmental review, and politics.  Bill and Paul write as well as anyone in planning, as journalists on the side; another strength is going beyond the legalese to comment on how decisions involve local political economy in various forms.
They makes planning sound hard enough that you should feel good to be good at it, and prepared for intrigue.

The Urban and Regional Planning Reader, edited by Eugenie Birch.  The prefaces, as in other volumes in this series (and if she has a particular interest going in, such as design or sustainability or community development, there’s a reader for that), do a lot to make the articles fit into the big picture.
Then of course there is the nice sample of readings and topics themselves.

The City Reader, Legates/Stout, is a good complement, though she might wait for the 5th edition planned for early next year.

Finally, I always use Suburban Nation (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck) to get the blood flowing in my freshman seminar, and sometimes in my grad class on sprawl too.  If she’s reading on her own, it can be paired with Sprawl: A Compact History by Bruegmann.  The authors mean each to be provocative, and they are, but also easy to digest and extremely transparent.  Maybe too transparent.  One downside is that this debate over the form of cities often errs on the side of more polemic, and students sometimes feel they are being asked to pick sides, which some like and some do not.

(My favorite alternative to this pamphlet approach to urban history, but more audacious and clever — though also requiring more concentration — by organizing the raw information about aspirations, meetings, project management, and other data to compare and contrast master planning efforts, Reforming Suburbia: The Planned Communities of Irvine, Columbia, and the Woodlands, Ann Forsyth.  After, your student could tell you which works best and why without having to resort to idiosyncratic notions of planning right and wrong.)

(b) Then there is stuff about cities as places where humanity thrives and suffers, and solves murder mysteries.  So if she wants to get excited about thinking about planning as a profession that pretty uniquely starts with cities as their unit of analysis, lots of different things can play that role.  There’s the historical (e.g., The City in History, Mumford, or Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, Fogelson, or The City, Kotkin, all books with strong, contested points of view) which can double as prep for their first year history course.

People have mentioned studies of particular cities, whether old or very contemporary (e.g., New York for Sale, by Angotti, which John Friedmann was going on about when I saw him reading it on a plane) and sometimes collecting new data in different ways, often comparative (e.g., The Endless City, Burdett, Sudjic et al.).

Or very narrow slices of how cities matter, such as the production and evolution of art (e.g., The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984, Taylor et al.) or historical photography books, sometimes with particular perspectives (e.g., Cities from the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America, Campanella, which might be my favorite planning coffee table book).  Or a slice of a conventional planning sector, such as public housing (From the Puritans to the Projects, Vale, or American Project, Venkatesh).  Basically, anything that centers on cities or suburbs as the local where things happen.  Anything that gets the student excited about cities as places where people live and do stuff.

Which reminds me to remind you that this generation especially looks to material from the internets, so there is also a slew of stuff on youtube or other video archives, not least many of Mr. Duany speaking very clearly and provocatively about stuff he really likes, such as his projects, and really really really doesn’t like, which might be most of the rest of urban America.  There is an urban planning FB page, where people post readings, announce projects and questions.

There are a few videos with Mr. Fulton as well (here’s one as part of a Berkeley seminar on land use and transportation — you can skip to minute 24 for as good a discussion of the issues surrounding legislated solutions to climate change through land use as I’ve heard), now Mayor of Ventura (full disclosure: he is also my facebook friend although, on the other hand, lately its kind of what the mayor is up to).

I found a FB fan page for Duany, which has exactly one liker.  (I could personally double this number; or leave that to your student.)

Book authors increasingly have youtube videos as part of the rollout.  (Here’s Venkatesh with a great reading from his new book on gang governance and entrepreneurs in the projects, which he introduces with his Freakonomics story of being kidnapped by a Chicago projects gang while doing a survey on “how does it feel to be black and poor?,” having gone from growing up in lovely master planned Irvine — which he describes as an awful place, something I hear a lot from kids growing up here, like mine, even though at least one of their parents love it — to a math major at UCSD, then to sociology grad school at UChicago, and then discussing the genesis of his dissertation problem statement and methods.)

We could just as well suggest others suited to specific areas of interest, from crashing traffic to greening the planet, to labor markets.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you could follow Duany, Fulton and maybe Venkatesh (and some gang leaders?), on twitter too.  And some places (e.g., MIT and USC) have podcasts of lectures.  (I would subscribe to Genie Birch’s tweets, given all she’s been up to lately.)

(c) Finally, while we also like our students to be prepped for their methods courses, this can be harder to do on one’s own.  (It also can be easier, as faculty all know now that we no longer take classes to learn new stuff, but still somehow pick it up without a test to be seen.)

Brush up on statistics?  Might as well add micro.  But these go down easier in use on real problems. City Economics by O’Flaherty (partly available on google books) is often both deeper and more accessible that O’Sullivan’s Urban Economics, in my view, but they both also use statistics to spell out how the logic of economics can be useful for lots of kinds of city problems.

Thursday, August 5th, 2010
randall Crane