The Best Architecture, Planning and Urban Affairs books of 2006

I put a lot of thought into the order of this list, but please remember that it reflects my personal interests as much as overall goodness of the book.

Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, And The Moral Panic Over The City by Steve Macek
This is my overall favorite of the year. It rocks (and it's U of M press). Macek takes a long look at film, advertising and the media and the portrayal of the city, as well as the way that the right has used those ideas to gain power in the suburbs over the past 50 years by creating an us vs. them that left the perception of urban dwellers as being poor, non-white, and immoral. One of the books strengths is how often it lets the right speak for itself. Like the wonderful suggestion that we must, "abridge to an appropriate degree the freedom" of urban dwellers. Wonderful stuff.

The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War by Robert Beven
This is also a fantastic book. It's about the targeting of architecture during episodes of ethnic cleansing. There are big sections on Nazi Germany, the Balkans, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq. My thesis work is going to be on the ways that planning and architecture can reflect and promote national identity. Well, this is the dark side. Mosques into churches. Priceless works of art destroyed along with civilian populations. History physically erased.

Planet of Slums by Mike Davis
Mike Davis is one of my favorites and this is a great topic. Davis has to be one of the most intelligent people writing now. The shear amount of information can be overwhelming at times, but at the same time it isn't a difficult read. In this book, he examines the growth of informal housing throughout the world (and for those who think this is a third world problem, there are areas of the US that have ever growing shantytowns) and some of the responses to the problem from groups like UNHabitat or economists like DeSoto.

Cities by John Reader
Reader presents the history of cities from a natural perspective, which is really quite fascinating. He also addresses the whole chicken and egg problem of urban development in a very good way. Did cities begin because people started producing agricultural surpluses or did people start producing agricultural surpluses because cities developed? Reader makes the case that archeological evidence seems to say that people grouped together first and foremost of religious and defensive reasons and developed agriculture to support that arrangement.

The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup
Now, a six-hundred plus page book on parking is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but if you are interested, this book is interested. It's really pretty amazing how a seemingly little public policy decision like parking minimums shape so much of our physical world. This book has given rise to a whole generation of "Shoupistas," so hopefully we'll see a lot of local policy changes in the near future. This is one area where planners can really take the lead.

Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century by Leonie Sandercock
Sandercock teaches at UBC now, but she's spent a long career throughout Australia and Canada studying the post-colonial city. This book is about the 21st century city, which, to her, means the diverse city, the demilitarized city, and above all, "I don't want a city where my profession - urban planning... act(s) as spatial police, regulating bodies in space..." Sandercock is also married to John Friedman, who wrote Planning in the Public Domain, which is also awesome.

Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster by Eric Michael Dyson
As promised, one more book on Katrina. Dyson's book has wonderful statistics on rates of car ownership and access to automobiles, a great timeline and some wonderful thoughts on Kanye West's "George Bush doesn't care about black people" comment. Dyson suggests that it didn't mean that Bush personally doesn't care about individual black people but rather that the Republican Party as a whole has written off the possibility of winning Black votes and therefore directs it's aid toward people who may vote for them and in that way collectively doesn't care.

Runner-up books worth reading:
The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World by Deyan Sudjic
The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City by Richard Lloyd



The Best History Books of 2006

Back to the Lists. I think I've got two more in me.

List Three:

The Best History Books of 2006
And again, it's a little hard to nail down dates sometime, but I think all of these came out in either hardcover or paperback this year.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
I read this book all the way through in one sitting (an airplane ride actually). The author (I think it's just a pen name) travels through Burma (Myanmar) in search of locations associated with George Orwell's time there. Orwell was born in Burma and his first novel was set there (Burmese Days). She also makes interesting comparisons between the current government and the books 1984 and Animal Farm. It's a quick read but very moving.

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins
This was the Pulitzer Prize winner in Non-Fiction this year. I always try to read the Pulitzers, as they tend to be so well written. It was a major bonus this year that it also happened to be about Africa. Although it's about the time period of the Mau-Mau insurgency in Kenya, it focuses much more on the lives of the people who weren't fighting. Basically, since all the men were fighting, the British rounded up all of the women and children and placed them in horrible camps where torture, rape and death were daily occurrences. Many of the same ideas (and people) were involved in similar projects with the British in Malaysia and the Americans in Vietnam. It's an excellent academic study, but also manages to be readable and emotional.

A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland by John Mac Faragher
In keeping with the Ethnic Cleansing theme, I spent a lot of time in French Canada this year and also did a lot of reading about Canada's French speaking peoples, the Quebecois, the Metis (the French-Indian living in the west), and the Acadians, who originally lived around the Bay of Fundy (today's New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) but were expelled by the governors of Massachusetts and Nova Scotia just before the American Revolution. This is the story of the expulsion. Like most Ethnic Cleansers, the perpetrators of this crime kept excellent records (in their minds to show the justice of their actions).

The Acadians: In Search of a Homeland by James Laxer
This book, which has only been published in Canada so far, tells the next part of the story. It shows how the Acadians scattered to become Louisiana's Cajuns as well as reconstituted in northern New Brunswick to become a political force there. It's a pretty fascinating look at how a people group can survive culturally without a homeland (kind of like the Latinos in Aztlan?) Hopefully an American publisher will pick it up.

The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker by Mary Fulbrook
I have to admit that I haven't finished this one yet, but it's been really good so far, so I had to add it to the list. Fulbrook is a sociologist from the London School of Economics. While discussing the DDR with many of her students who had grown up there, she found that it didn't fit her ideas of what Communist dictatorship was supposed to be. She gives the idea that we need to look more closely at how power was actually used instead of just using terms like Democratic or Authoritarian. Basically, she thinks that the DDR was what she has termed Participatory Authoritarianism, which basically means that although there was an authoritarian power structure, people were still active in decision making, especially at the local level.

Pol Pot by Phillip Short
I also read a lot this year about Southeast Asia, but most of the books were pretty classic. This is the only one that was actually published recently. Short does a very good job of telling the story of the Khmer Rouge leader and also has a very interesting idea that some of the responsibility for the Khmer Rouge period belongs on the shoulders of the French education system and the way that they still unflinchingly teach that the blood and gore of the French Revolution (which, as a percentage of population was actually the bloodiest revolution in history, far more then the Russian, Chinese or even Cambodian) was necessary for the creation of modern France.

The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself by Philip Fradkin
I read this one for my Urban Disaster class last summer. When I recommend it to people at work, I always tell that that if you want to understand what happened in New Orleans, this book is the best place to start. It shows, in great detail, how disasters effect the poor unevenly and how minorities are often mistreated and left out of disaster recovery. It was quite shocking how little things have changed between 1906 and 2005. There will be more on Katrina in the next list.

The Final List: Architecture, Planning and Urban Studies



Translating Green: A Design Manifesto

The cities of America are finally growing again. Suburbanites and Immigrants, no longer afraid of images of grime, poverty and Law and Orderesqe crimes that lurk around every corner, are refilling long dormant streets. With them have come new demands for planners and architects. It seems that everywhere people are calling for Green. Perhaps a problem of vocabulary, it seems that Green has become the lowest common denominator in design. Whenever a project gets bogged down, Green is the only thing that can be agreed upon. As trained professionals, we should not get trapped into providing Green without thought to what the public means. Because the public lacks the words to explain what they seek, we must translate what the people are asking for when they ask for Green.

The first, and perhaps most important, possible translation of Green is that of creating sustainable, ecological cities. Planners have a responsibility to think of long-term benefits and detriments of development. Developers, with their focus on money, and politicians, with their short-term focus on the next election, cannot be trusted to look out for the city in this way. At the same time, when the people ask for Green, few of them are probably aware of the long-term ecological consequences of development. A lush park in Phoenix, while Green/color, would be very unlikely to be Green/sustainable. Thus, providing Green/color in much of the water-hungry southwest, for example, is contradictory to the goal of providing Green/sustainability.

This leads to the second possible translation. Green could (and often probably does) mean literal Green. I believe that these Green requests often come from the people in the city who are most enamored of suburban life. The image of the front lawn creates the image of what a streetscape should look like to these urban dwellers.

We must then try to examine what the front yard provides suburban localities. The front yard serves as a buffer between the public realm (the street) and the private (the home). In the best of cases, the yard, along with the front porch, would serve as a sort of semi-public (or semi-private) realm; however, this seldom seems to be the case anymore. The front yard may succeed aesthetically (in the eyes of the suburbanites), but it often fails to give people a meaningful connection to the streets.

If the demand for Green can be seen as a demand for further suburbanization of urban space, planners must resist it. The suburbs already exist. People can choose to live there if they want. If we turn the city into pseudo-suburb (as Jane Jacobs called it), we endanger the diversity and connection between the public and private that create the most meaningful experiences of the city.

Instead, we should concentrate on providing usable, meaningful public and semi-public spaces. In this way, we could reduce the demand for Green to a simple aesthetic preference. Providing a minimum of Green will then enable us to provide more important public spaces.

Philosopher Alain de Botton puts forward another possible translation in his 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness. De Botton believes that calls for Green are a reactionary response to the extreme rationalization of space that has existed for the past hundred years. In his opinion, people living in the small medieval city sought refuge from nature that existed all around them and demanded a rational planning process. Today, in a world where anyone who visits a city for the first time and spends two minutes studying a map can guess that to find 6527 Third Avenue South-East means going 65 blocks from the east-west axis and three blocks from the north-south axis, people long for a bit of surprise. I believe this is also shown by the tendency of creative people to congregate in areas of gridded cities that do not follow the city’s rational pattern. Greenwich Village in New York, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Uptown or Loring Park in Minneapolis are all examples of irrational neighborhoods in rational cities that are charged with creative energy.

Translating can be a difficult task, however, it is the task that Planners are called to. We must seek to understand the vocabulary of the public and craft it into a physical language (the city) that can be deciphered by its inhabitants. In my opinion, the word Green, when uttered in public forums, can be understood in these three ways. Green = sustainability. Green = public. Green = surprise. As the understanding of language is often relative, this could never be an exhaustive list, however, I believe it is a starting off point.


1. Planners should seek to increase sustainability in the city.
2. Planners should seek to increase valuable, usable public/open space in the city.
3. Planners should not hyper-rationalize space. Just like chance meetings on the street, the architecture and planning of the city should allow the city-dweller to be occasionally surprised by their surroundings.

In all of these ways, Planners can understand increased calls for Green as calls for creating livable, sustainable and interesting urban environments.



The Best Coffee Table Books of 2006

OK. I know what you're all thinking. Two posts in one day? Well, that just means that I'm working (or not working) on my papers. I finished one, so now I'm working up motivation on the second. So far I've watched an episode of Friends, done a 3D model of my block in SketchUp and written this post. Next I'm writting the paper. Really.

Anyway, here is list two:

The Best Coffee Table Books of 2005-2006
There were some really great coffee table books over the past year if you are into maps. I'm expanding this list to take up about a year and a half of publishing.

Cities of the World: A History in Maps by Peter Whitfield
This is my favorite this year. It's got great historic maps of the worlds great cities, including Boston, Berlin, Saigon, Rome, ect. as well as some really cool old maps of pre-columbian Mexico City. Whitehead uses the different maps to explain the ways the cities have changed over time and how we've adapted them to modern life. Very, very cool.

The Cities Book: A Journey Through the Best Cities in the World by Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet let people vote on their favorite cities and then made a coffee table book with the results. The photographs are beautiful, plus it's fun to see how everything got rated and (since we're all list people out there) to come up with your own). My current top five (oh, my goodness it's a list within a list): Berlin, New York, Ho Chi Minh City, Montreal, Hong Kong.

Atlas Major by Peter van Krogt
This is Tachen's reprint of an atlas that was originally published in 1665. It was the top seller of the seventeenth century. It's a beautiful book and it's frankly astonishing how well mapped the world was even before GIS and Google Earth. According to Amazon it's $200, but I got my copy from Barnes and Noble as a bargain book for about $25. If you can find it, buy it.

My runners up in this catagory go the teNeues' :and guide (architecture and design) series and the travel edition of Phaidon's Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. I find these pretty much indespensible when I travel. teNeues really needs to do a Montreal guide.


The Best Fiction of 2006

So, like my bus driver buddy over at Driver2165, I'm going to break up my end of the year book lists topically. Today's teaser:

The Best Fiction of 2006!!!

Now, I'm not a huge fiction reader, so my base of books read is admittedly small for this one, but I'm going with Dave Egger's What is the What for best book of the year. Kind of like Egger's Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What is a semi-fictional biography. He worked with the main character in the book for three years and traveled with him to the Sudan in order to write the book. It's the story of one of the Lost Boys.

My runner-up is jPod by Douglas Coupland.




So, despite the fact that I still have three papers and a final next week it feels like pretty small fish compared to the two presentations that I had to do this week, so it really feels like school is winding down. My biggest project was the one for Urban Design where we actually had to take an actual place and design something for it. My group worked on a section of abandoned industrial waterfront property in East Boston that has a lot of promise. I'm feeling much better about actually doing drawings now, and I learned how to do 3D modeling with a great program from google called SketchUp that's great and very easy to use. After that I had a presentation on the disastrous results of off-street parking minimums in Massachusetts small towns. Both went well.

My biggest annoyance of the week is that someone from Japan stole $900 from our bank account somehow. We will, of course, get it all back, but it does take a week, plus we had to open a new account which means that we've got to change all of our direct deposits and all of our direct withdrawals and everything else. It's a big pain.

I'm also getting set for next semester already. I'm going to be taking another design class at Wentworth Institute of Technology from the same professor I had this semester and I'll be working on my Thesis. I'm going to continue the work I've done in the past at looking at the intersection of politics, architecture and planning. My major question is going to be if the movement of the Canadian Metropolis from Montreal to Toronto is one of the defining catalysts of Quebecois Nationalism. As far as I've been able to tell, no one has really looked at it that way before because Quebec usually defines it's culture as being rooted in rural tradition, but I think that it's probable that in order for a real nationalist movement to emerge it was necessary for there to be a true Quebecois metropolis to promote Quebecois culture (which is what Montreal was able to become after the Canadian Metropolis shifted to Toronto). I guess we'll find out though.



Planetizen just posted the yearly list of best books on Urban issues. I've only read the Mike Davis book Planet of Slums, which was excellent and I'm looking forward to reading more, especially the ones on gentrification, roads and disaster planning.

I'm hoping to get my own end of the year list up soon too, but first I have to go through the rather complex process of trying to figure out what was published this year.


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