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What to read to understand cities

Five books on the advantages, problems and future of the places where most people live and work

'Architecture of Density' by Michael Wolf. demonstrates the extreme scale of the buildings in one of the worlds most densely populated cities - Hong Kong.
image: CAMERA PRESS/Michael Wolf/laif

MORE THAN half the world’s population lives in cities. In rich countries the share is four-fifths. Contrary to some predictions, remote working has so far done little to interrupt the advance of urbanisation. The rise of cities is nothing to lament: productivity is higher in urban than in rural areas, which means that urbanites tend to be richer than rural folk. Yet not all cities are equal. Some are ladders of economic opportunity. Others, especially in the former industrial heartlands of the West, are poverty traps. Many are trying to figure out how to become greener. To understand better how cities came to dominate our world, and how to design them well, read these five books.

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. By Lewis Mumford. HarperCollins; 784 pages; $30.00. Fine Communications; ?15.00

This tour de force from Lewis Mumford, an American social critic, sets out a sweeping account of cities as a force in shaping history. Beginning in the ancient Middle East, Mumford explores how cities helped early societies learn how to operate as large organisations with complex divisions of labour and fostered innovations from the wheel to written language. Mumford then takes readers on a whirlwind tour, from the imperial capitals of antiquity to the city-states of the Renaissance. He proceeds to the horrors of 19th-century urban industrialisation and to the suburbanised megalopolises that were taking shape when he was writing, in the early 1960s. For a comprehensive account of cities through time, start here.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities. By Jane Jacobs. Random House; 640 pages; $25.00. ?18.50

Published in 1961, the same year as “The City in History”, this book is widely considered to be among the most important contributions to urban theory. Jane Jacobs, a journalist, wrote at a time when cities like New York (which she had made her home) were ripping out their cores to make room for highways. She argued that suburban sprawl, encouraged by the automobile, jeopardised cities’ healthy functioning. Her book is perhaps most famous for its discussion of the many purposes of pavements, from fostering community bonds to discouraging crime, and for its advocacy of neighbourhoods that blend residential and commercial functions and accommodate both prosperous and poor households.

The Rise of the Creative Class. By Richard Florida. Basic Books; 512 pages; $21.99. ?14.99

In the decades after Mumford and Jacobs published their canonical works, inner cities in America, Britain and elsewhere declined economically as middle-class families fled to new suburban neighbourhoods. Urban crime rose, municipal tax revenues fell and local services, including education and public transport, deteriorated.

A striking reversal of that pattern began around the turn of the century, when a new generation of well-paid professionals flocked back to the inner city. In this influential book published in 2002 Richard Florida, an urban theorist, linked that reversal to a rejection by young, educated workers of suburbia’s commercialised values in favour of the more bohemian and “authentic” lifestyles on offer in inner cities. A new “creative class” rejuvenated—and gentrified—many working-class urban neighbourhoods. The price of gentrification would be the subject of later work by Mr Florida, including “The New Urban Crisis”, published in 2017.

Triumph of the City. By Edward Glaeser. Penguin; 368 pages; $19.00. Pan Macmillan; ?10.99

This book from 2011 by Edward Glaeser, now chairman of the economics department at Harvard University, focuses on the economics of cities. It shows how cities’ density encourages productivity by fostering the flow of goods, talent and ideas. Density also exacerbates problems such as congestion, crime and disease. Mr Glaeser demonstrates that small homes and short commutes mean that city living is better for the environment than residence in suburbia and the countryside. His book also suggests how cities can adapt to the shift of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. By Charles Montgomery. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 368 pages; $19.00. Penguin Books; ?10.99

Despite its cringeworthy title, “Happy City”, published in 2013, offers an insightful account of the vanguard of thinking in urban planning. Drawing on examples from around the world and on behavioural science, Charles Montgomery, an urbanist, considers how cities can maximise the quality of life for their residents while minimising their carbon footprint. His book explores, among other things, the impact of keeping cars out of cities, the ideal mix of high- and low-rise buildings and how to balance residents’ needs for privacy and conviviality. “Happy City” is a cheering read.

Also try

Our global business correspondent is a co-author of “Age of the City”, a book that explores why cities will shape the future of such issues as inequality, political fractiousness, climate change and pandemics. This article in The Economist illustrates how the city grid, the oldest form of urban planning, is falling out of fashion. Read about the ungreening of Nairobi and about how Japan is remaking its cities for an ageing population. “Straight Line Crazy”, a play first staged in 2022, dramatises the clash between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, who scored New York City with highways. Our Lexington columnist wrote in April 2023 about the revival of Detroit. Here we describe how a suburb of Indianapolis is succeeding by becoming more like a city. Our film from 2021 discusses how to manage megacities. These are the world’s most “liveable” cities, according to an index put together by our sister company, EIU. We also looked more closely at the liveability rankings of cities in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa and Latin America.

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