Does every reader hold an unexpected fascination with an unlikely subject? I’d like to think so, and I know mine—I’m fascinated by urban planning.
I love to know how things are made, why things work the way they do, and how our physical spaces shape our behavior in ways both positive and negative—and how they do so whether or not we’re aware of it.
I’ve been meaning to share a list of favorites here on the blog for ages now, and am finally doing it now because the second category for the 2019 Reading Challenge is “a book about a topic that fascinates you.” I know what my topic is, and if you share my unlikely obsession, add one of these titles to your list.
But most of you will choose a book from an entirely genre. Please tell us in comments what subjects you find fascinating, and what you are therefore contemplating reading for this category. We’d love to hear.
I knew I’d rather walk short distances than drive, and preferred bustling downtowns and first-ring suburbs to the car-dependent exurbs, but I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read Jane Jacobs’ classic. Jacobs helped me understand the nagging feelings I’d always had about the way we structured–or failed to structure–our living spaces here in America. A modern classic from a true pioneer, full of stories and anecdotes about not just cities, but the people who live in them. More info →
I call this the best book you've never heard of on architecture, and though it is a book about architecture, and written by architects, it’s aimed squarely at the lay person, because Alexander believes they are best suited to the task of design: “People should design for themselves their own houses, streets, and communities. This idea may be radical…but it comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.” The idea is to recognize the patterns you love and that suit your needs and combine them together to create a space you’d love to live in. Enjoyable to read straight-through or dip in and out of. More info →
This is my #1 pick in this niche, without a doubt; I've read it half a dozen times. Speck is a bit of a contrarian: at its heart, the book isn't about walking at all. Instead, Speck aims to show how we can deliberately plan urban spaces to be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. At a deeper level, Speck reveals how our spaces shape our behavior, whether or not we're aware of it. Pragmatic, relevant, and completely fascinating. More info →
This follow-up to Walkable City just came out in October. Speck says he wanted to address "everything that people tend to get wrong these days when designing pieces of cities," and compiles the important guidelines and formulas needed to make city spaces useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Despite the similar titles, Rules contains overwhelmingly new content, while going into more detail than its predecessor. His writing remains accessible and humorous, even when he's describing terms I'm unfamiliar with, like "neckdowns" and "freeflow lanes." I've been talking about this so much that my husband picked it up; he's reading it right now. More info →
The title may sound silly, but it comes from the central argument: human isolation is responsible for much unhappiness, and is largely a symptom of design. Why not plan for happiness instead, by supporting human connection with our urban design? Packed with examples from cities around the world that are putting these ideas into practice and intentionally planning more pleasant public places. While not inaccessible, this is one of the drier reads on the list. More info →
This is a straight-up textbook: I wouldn't make this your starting point. But if you've read Speck and Jacobs over and over and are ready for some fresh information, this 733-page tome will keep you busy for a good long while. I had no idea how much I didn't know about parking, and about the economic structures that support the heavy use of the car in many communities, including my own. Now I think about Shoup every time I walk down a city street. This made wonderful bedtime reading for me: the chapters were fascinating enough to keep me awake and engaged, but a book about parking is easier to put down than a page-turning thriller, so I wasn't overtired the next morning. More info →