In a 2019 review of Samuel Stein’s Capital City for The New Yorker, Nikil Saval writes, “The planner, after decades of irrelevance, or worse, might yet be a figure of note—and perhaps, in a time of crisis, one of purpose.” In recent years, the publishing industry has readily taken note of the field, and a host of new books offer diverse perspectives on a wide swath of planning topics. Below, the Carolina Planning Journal editorial board highlights the best planning books we read in 2019.
Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. (2019)
Black Food Geographies isn’t the kind of book you’ll find on the syllabus of a typical planning course (Reese is an anthropologist), but it’s a must-read for anyone interested in environmental justice, public health, and urban food issues. Using ethnography, Reese examines the forces that shape food access and the relationship between urban food distribution and systemic racism in a black neighborhood in D.C. The value (and joy) of the book is that it challenges stereotypes of these neighborhoods as disadvantaged or lacking (she takes real issue with the term “food desert”), focusing instead on stories of self-reliance, resistance, and black agency.
The Broken Earth Trilogy (2015-2017)
N. K. Jemisin
By far the most tangentially related to planning book here, The Broken Earth trilogy is a triple Hugo winning science fiction series about a world where natural disasters are a constant occurrence. Most towns are built to be broken and rebuilt every time one of these disasters hits, with caches for when water and food become scarce when one of these disasters inevitably lasts for several years. These Fifth Seasons (also the name of the first book) can erase entire civilizations, and the culture and architecture that evolved in this world is explored in depth. Beyond the planning aspect, it’s a perfect example of what the best science fiction can be: fully realized characters in another world that give us insight into our own. I don’t believe in spoilers, so I refuse to say more besides read it before it becomes a disappointing prestige TV show.
New York’s New Edge: Contemporary Art, the High Line, and Urban Megaprojects on the Far West Side (2016)
David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso
This book offers a retrospective analysis of three interwoven transformations to New York City’s urban landscape that occurred under Mayor Michael Bloomberg: the rise of Chelsea as a world-class arts district, the creation of the much-publicized High Line, and the epic development of the Hudson Yards. Halle and Tiso—a sociologist and art historian, respectively—masterfully illustrate how these historical developments have altered the trajectory of New York’s urban and cultural development. This book will prove a worthy read to anyone interested in uncovering the inner-workings of urban development in New York.
Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom (2019)
In Policing the Open Road, legal historian Sarah Seo demonstrates how the automobile led to the creation of professionalized police forces and obfuscated traditional legal concepts of public and private. Recasting the car as a key site of state surveillance rather than a vehicle for personal liberation, Seo’s meticulously researched book makes a convincing case for the central role of the car in contemporary policing and jurisprudence.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (2015)
The book has ten chapters with ten distinct regions. Marshall explains each area related to its spatial components and how they strongly influence the politics in that area. His writing gives an excellent overview of political conflicts between adjacent countries.
Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (2019)
Charles Marohn Jr.
The Strong Towns organization has been a regular voice in the urban planning world for years through its website and media presence. However, the Strong Towns book is the first attempt to synthesize and condense all of the ideas into one source. In the book, Marohn outlines the failings of the current North American development pattern—namely, how our sprawled, auto-centric, infrastructure-heavy cities are unable to support themselves financially. The problems addressed in the book are both grim and substantial, yet the proposed solutions manage to be both hopeful and actionable. Additionally, for a book largely on municipal finance, the concepts are easily digestible. At just over 200 pages, this is a quick and worthwhile read for anyone who cares about the long-term stability of our cities!
The Yellow House (2019)
Sarah Broom’s first book is a captivating memoir detailing her family’s history in New Orleans East and beyond. Her writing deftly navigates between storytelling and broader social and political critiques, leveraging her family’s generations in New Orleans to paint a remarkably detailed picture of the ability of place to influence people’s life trajectories and vice versa. Though hardly a planning textbook, The Yellow House explores issues of transportation, zoning, community, race, political priorities, gentrification, tourism, and natural disasters, among others, from a profoundly personal perspective. It’s not only a captivating read, but a compelling reminder of the individuals who must be the ultimate focus of planning and public policy.
You & a Bike & a Road (2017)
A graphic novel travelogue about a cross-country bike trip, You & a Bike & a Road captures the pain and beauty of traveling long distance in America on roads that aren’t always built for the chosen mode. The illustrations and story are perfect together, both loose, fleeting, but still memorable and meaningful. Davis captures minor observations that fly by too quickly to notice when driving and emphasize the unique beauty of traveling on two wheels.