Holiday Book Recommendations Open Thread

Some of us at Streetsblog headquarters were talking about putting together a sidebar listing of recommended books to reinforce the commentary you find on the blog. I put together a few brief recommendations of five of my favorites, but we’re also interested in learning what you’ve all been reading and what you’d suggest to others, so treat this as an open thread on livable streets-related books now that we’re in the midst of the holiday gift-buying season.

Here are five books that really got my attention as I’ve been thinking about transportation policy, land use planning and public space. This list is nothing but one man’s opinion.

3844220.gif1) Transportation for Livable Cities by Vukan R. Vuchic (Center for Urban Policy Research, 1999) Why is the result of adding an HOV lane to an existing highway completely different than converting an existing regular lane into an HOV lane? Vuchic’s look at transportation planning is detailed enough to make the distinction clear. More generally, he notes the difference between the variable, or per-trip, costs of driving versus the fixed costs of car ownership, which don’t change regardless of how many trips one takes, and why we should care about the difference: The greater the proportion of fixed costs (such as annual or monthly insurance and lease payments) to variable costs (gasoline and tolls), the more one who has already purchased a car is likely to use it as much as possible. The more an individual trip costs, the more one will think about not making it, or making it a different way. The same applies to transit, of course, which explains why the monthly unlimited MetroCard is a more monumental innovation than it might seem. Vuchic’s thesis is that transportation planning in the United States has counted on the car being the solution to every transportation problem, rather than as one important element of a well-integrated multi-modal transportation system.

9574001.gif2) The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald C. Shoup (American Planning Association, 2005) This is a companion to Transportation for Livable Cities. Both books look at how standard U.S. transportation and land use practices subtly manipulate fees so as to serve drivers at the expense of everyone else, whether their cars are in motion (Vuchic) or at rest (Shoup). One of the largest variable costs of driving is parking fees, but outside of New York, parking is nearly always free to the driver! Instead, costs of supplying parking are paid by developers, a cost that filters down to shoppers, office workers, residents, museum visitors, etc., regardless of whether they use the parking or not. Despite the title, though, this book isn’t really about free parking so much as it is about zoning codes that require a minimum amount of parking for each land use, and a condemnation of the way those numbers are arrived at (i.e., arbitrarily). Discussions of the esoteric aspects of zoning code sounds like a snoozer? Well, the result is that parking is subsidized to the point of being free, and you’d be a fool not to use it. "Cities insist on ample off-street parking for every land use," he writes. "As a result, most of us drive almost everywhere we go." His contention is that free parking promotes sprawl and disinvestment in cities, and I think he’s on to something.

7064985.gif3) Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 by Robert M. Fogelson (Yale, 2001) "By the time my father began to practice law in the mid 1920s," Fogelson writes, "most Americans went downtown to work. And not only to work, but also to shop, to do business, and to amuse themselves." Then that changed as Fogelson traces the history of dispersion out of cities of housing, then stores, then even offices. He describes in detail the series of decisions made to rip up streetcar tracks in city after city and divert funding from subways to highways in the first half of the 20th century. This long history puts the recent past into perspective. "Nowhere in urban America is downtown coming back as the only business district, as it was in the late nineteenth century, or even as the paramount and virtually unrivaled business district, as it was in the early twentieth. The almighty downtown of the past is gone — and gone for good. And it has been gone much longer than most Americans realize."

8669778.gif4) South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City by Jill Jonnes (Fordham, 2002) In fairness, it wasn’t just the automobile, highways and availability of cheap gasoline that caused America’s urban exodus. At least in the Bronx, a lot of the people who fled did so begrudgingly, and after being pushed out by high crime and other factors as much as lured out by the promise of the suburbs. In a captivating look at New York’s nadir in the 1970s, Jonnes introduces many characters from the time and describes the myriad factors that led to the destruction by fire of an enormous swath of a once beloved place — not just the Bruckner elevated expressway, but also bank redlining, a lack of owner-occupied dwellings and public housing policy that put arson victims at the front of the waiting list for housing regardless of whether they might also be the arson perpetrators. In all, the book is a portrait of a time when people thought cities were obsolete and the term "planned shrinkage" was actually something people talked about.

11940646.gif5) The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century by James Howard Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) An alarming look at a future characterized by resource depletion, high energy costs, global warming, and a radical restructuring of the way Americans organize their economic lives, all related to the overuse of the automobile from an upstater who has previously weighed in on, and condemned, suburban sprawl. Schadenfreude-tinged alarmism, yes, but it draws people’s attention to the connection between land use patterns and energy consumption.

A few books I didn’t include. This short list is woefully incomplete.

  • Any officially sanctioned Streetsblog recommended reading list will have to include the work of the brilliant William H. Whyte, whom I’ve omitted only because I don’t happen to have any of his books lying around at the moment.
  • I omitted works by Jane Jacobs and Robert Caro as being too obvious.
  • I would have included The Urban Naturalist, a book of essays and exercises designed to increase one’s spiritual connection with urban places and written by my fiancee, but it isn’t actually published yet.
  • Unfortunately, I didn’t have space to include an entry on the best anti-road rage haiku collection ever published.

17 thoughts on Holiday Book Recommendations Open Thread

  1. For some of the sociological implications of the car culture and the privatization of all sectors of life, I highly recommend “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam. I wrote a brief review over at The Oil Drum.

    The book that really scared the crap out of me and got me involved in environmental issues in the first place was “Collapse” by Jared Diamond.

    And anyone that lives in a suburb, don’t feel like there is nothing you can do: Read Superbia to find detailed descriptions of 31 ideas to create a more sustainable neighborhood.

    And in video format, I recommend “End of Suburbia”, the last episode of Ken Burns documentary on NYC and the Transportation Alternatives movie Contested Streets.

  2. Glenn – You sure End of Suburbia is a Ken Burns film? It doesn’t appear that way. I thought the “Center of the World” World Trade Center episode was the 8th and final episode of the NYC PBS documentary.

  3. Someguy – sorry for the confusion and poor, rushed grammar. Those are three separate recommendations:

    1. End of Suburbia
    2. The Last episode of the Ken Burns PBS series on NYC
    3. Contested Streets

  4. Oh and you are right about the WTC being the last official installment of the Ken Burns series. I forgot they did that afterward. I was thinking of the one about the late 20th Century that was all filmed before 9/11. I can still see the pick-axes driving into the old beautiful marble Penn Station.

  5. I would also recommend Brian Hayes’ “Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape”. He seems to be a greenie from the waggish comments about automobiles and pro-bike comments, but the value of this book is its incredibly comprehensive explanation of how power plants, road engineering, railroads, and many many more things work. Best Hannukah present so far!

    see it here on amazon

  6. Oh, an awesome book for any city geek, or adults who used to read David Macauley (“The Way Things Work”, “Underground”) as a child, is “The Works: Anatomy of a City” by Kate Ascher (a VP at NYCEDC I believe). It exhaustively details how all of NYC’s vital systems work, from the most mundane to the most critical. Really incredible level of research.

  7. I’ve just finished reading “How Cities Work” by Alex Marshall and really recommend it highly. It starts of as one of those “new Urbanism is a nice idea but misses the point” kind of essays, but really morphs into a highly entertaining and well written explanation of how transportation policy is the key dterminant of how our cities will look.

  8. I’m a fan of futurebird’s livejournal, so I’m looking forward to reading “the Urban Naturalist.”

    Can we pre-order?

  9. Toward the Livable City collects ruminations on many of the issues listed in the frame on the right.
    (See table of contents here:

    This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl in America by Anthony Flint offers some lively reporting about land use issues nationally, especially the success and failures of smart growth advocates. One good chapter examines emerging coalitions between anti-sprawl and anti-poverty advocates. In all, a clearly written sum-up of how suburban sprawl will haunt the U.S. for decades—more polite than Kunstler’s Long Emergency, and more cautiously optimistic.
    Here’s my review for the Village Voice:,fleischerblack,75316,10.html

  10. I love to play pool and became very talented at it. I don’t have my very own pool table for the reason that I didn’t have room for it where I used to stay. 3 Months back I purchased my new house, it’s fantastic and has more room than my previous one. I decided, now is the time to get my very own pool room. That is to say, I am no longer definite if I want to have one room merely for putting a pool table in.
    While researching different pool tables on the internet I came across this interesting article on outdoor pool tables.

    I realize this is a fantastic place with cool members therefore what I am asking is if some of you had enjoyable experiences with an outdoor pool table. Is it really that much more entertaining than playing inside? The climate is good where I have my home so do I have to to take a lot of precautions so the pool table will survive a long time.
    Thank you for reading this and I hope you can guide me in making the best purchase.

  11. I was only this minute wondering if there are any other pool players here on this board.I don’t think about people who fancy to have fun around the swimming pool, I think about the game.I have a thing about shoot pool with my friends and I would like to meet some persons on the Internet that have the same passion.Only leave a note and I talk to you soon.

  12. Hi there

    # Fire Island
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    Download Village People – We Want You

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