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Noteworthy books

Notable Books | Four notable books about the city reviewed by Susan Olasky

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Content: This groundbreaking book came out in 1961 when city planners advocated tearing down neighborhoods and replacing them with large "urban renewal" projects. It is still in print and often read today, because Jacobs wrote beautifully about what makes cities work.

Gist: As Jacobs explored New York, she saw that healthy cities live by organic growth, not by planners on high mandating architectural styles or uses. She concluded that healthy cities allowed people of varying ages, classes, and occupations to live, shop, and recreate close-by, and that single-use zoning was the enemy to vibrant city life.

The Rise of the Creative Class

Content: Florida broadly defines the "creative class" and then argues that cities that cater to this group-particularly gays, artists, and trendy people-will thrive.

Gist: This hugely influential book has led policy makers around the country to try to emulate places like Boston, New York, and Austin, which rate highly on "hipness" measures. Florida argues that cities don't have to worry about high tax rates and spending because the "creatives" want cities that abound with cultural amenities like bike paths, museums, and live music.

The City: A Global History

Content: Kotkin emphasizes two themes in his 5,000-year dash through urban history: the "universality of the urban experience" regardless of time or place, and the need for cities to provide marketplaces, "sacred space," and basic security.

Gist: Folks wanting a short introductory history of the city will find it here. Kotkin challenges Richard Florida's ideas and predicts that cities relying on such notions will become "ephemeral . . . made up of a cosmopolitan elite and a large class of those, usually at low wages, who service their needs." He notes that the role of religion in urban life is often ignored.

Till We Have Built Jerusalem

Content: A series of essays on the philosophical underpinnings of architecture, urban design, and the "new urbanism" from a perspective based in Aristotle, Natural Law, and the Bible.

Gist: These essays, originally written for different audiences over time, are sometimes repetitive, but it is helpful repetition, as Bess asks how design can help man develop "individual and intellectual virtue (or excellence) lived with others in communities." Bess includes practical suggestions to churches and religious groups that want to be part of the new urbanism.


One of the best sources of writing on urban topics is the quarterly City Journal, available on the web and published by the libertarian Manhattan Institute. It consistently contains provocative essays-some written by Joel Kotkin and others praising Jane Jacobs-that challenge the conventional wisdom on poverty fighting, education, and other urban topics.

Steven Malanga, senior editor of the City Journal, criticizes Richard Florida: "Although his book bristles with charts and statistics showing how he constructed his various indexes and where cities rank on them, the professor, incredibly, doesn't provide any data demonstrating that his creative cities actually have vibrant economies that perform well over time. . . . Mr. Florida's indexes, in fact, are such poor predictors of economic performance that his top cities haven't even outperformed his bottom ones."


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