Cities around the world today are changing their landscapes in the blink of an eye. It makes one wonder if it is even possible to design cities with 10 or 20-year plan visions. Urban Design is rather complex and has several strings attached to it. Yet good design results in better social life, ecological integration, and economic growth. The article lists, in no particular order, a few must-read books for urban designers, each provides a rather unique way to look at cities and bring new ideas to the table. 

A few are all-time classics while others deal with the 21st century problems in a city. 

1. The Life and Death of American Cities – Jane Jacobs

The book published in 1961 was Jane Jacobs’ attempt to bring city planning from a bird’s eye view to a street-level perspective. She was an activist and a writer who strongly critiqued the urban planning policies that paid little or no attention to community life and humans while designing cities. The book is a compilation of Jacobs’ own experiences and observations on the street which cross knit a multitude of urban design aspects. It is a classic, a must-have, and a must-read. About half a century later, it continues to inspire and provide insights that have reformed American city planning.  

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2. The Image of the City – Kevin Lynch

Kevin Lynch, in his 1960 seminal book, looks at cities through the lens of ‘imageability’. Interestingly, he examines how people orient themselves in a city and make ‘mental maps’. The book portrays important elements of urban design that generate experiences and identity in a city. While reading, it is bound to make you think ‘oh! That is why do that’ or ‘that happened to me too’ and that is what makes it a classic. A web of complex ideas served with simplicity, the book is sure to make you look at cities with a renewed outlook. 

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3. Design with Nature – Ian McHarg

Design with Nature is amongst the first books that toss the idea of making cities concerning both ecology and character of the landscape. Published in 1969, it took the methods of urban planning by a storm and is still one of the most widely celebrated books on landscape architecture and ecological design. Ian McHarg emphasizes the importance of living with nature and suggests that doing so would create a stronger sense of place and identity amidst communities. Today as urban environments struggle to strike a balance with nature, McHarg’s ideas become all the more relevant.  

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4. A Pattern Language – Christopher Alexander 

A Pattern Language is a 1977 best-seller publication that is usually read from part to whole. Christopher lists a number ‘patterns’ that serve as short guides to build anything from a room to a town and interestingly connects them. The book enables even laymen to take control of their built environment while enhancing the sensitivity of designers to the smaller details of city building. 

His other work, ‘A new theory of Urban Design’ published in 1983, further supports the cause and lays out the groundwork for organic city planning. 

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5. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces – William Whyte 

Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a 1980 publication that comprises the findings from Whyte’s Street Life Project. What is interesting about this book is that these findings came as a result of thousands of hours of filming people on streets, in parks, and plazas. Both the book and an accompanying synthesized 55-minute film are classics and provide deep insights into the dynamics of human interactions in public spaces. The observations and findings of the book were ground-breaking and entirely based on the miracles of everyday street life. The book is one of the standard texts for urban designers.

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6. Cities for People – Jan Gehl 

Jan Gehl has worked around the globe transforming cities and making them livable for about four decades. He presses on the idea that cities must be designed around people instead of vehicles and adds the “human dimension” to public spaces. Considering the changing lifestyles and demographics, Gehl offers a workable toolbox for planners to design safe, sustainable, dynamic and workable human scale cityscapes. He has successfully helped revive the urban areas of Melbourne, Copenhagen, London, and New York amongst others. 

Life Between Buildings and How to Study Public Spaces are two other publications by Jan Gehl that you might want to line up in your reading list. 

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7. Walkable City – Jeff Speck 

Jeff Speck has managed to inculcate his entire prowess on urban design into a concise and easily perusable guide that focuses on the simple aspect of ‘walkability’.  In 2012, when he published the book, making ‘liveable cities’ was not a new concept. Yet somehow city planners struggle to make them. Jeff suggests practical and easily achievable solutions to make better cities. Illustrated by real-world examples, statistics and sharp-observations he thoroughly puts his point about how simple decisions have drastic effects. The book proposes a vibrant metropolis with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and a bustling urban core unlike the ones filled with the hooting of cars. 

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8. Tactical Urbanism – Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia 

Tactical Urbanism is the catch-all term for the recent trends in Urban Design such as DIY Urbanism, Pop-up Urbanism, Guerilla Urbanism. Mike and Anthony, co founders of Street Plans Collaborative profess the idea of a bottoms-up, short-term, community-driven approach to urbanism. From pop-up parks to street initiatives, the book illustrates examples of quick, low-cost, and creative projects that are aimed at long-term changes while placing the entire movement in context to history. It provides new insights into the ever-changing landscapes of cities and addresses shifts in spatial concepts by re-imagining and transforming spaces in the public realm. 

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9. Kinetic City – Rahul Mehrotra 

Urban realities in Asian countries are vastly different from that of the Western countries. Kinetic City, 2016 publication by veteran architect Rahul Mehrotra, discusses the ephemeral nature of cities and blurred lines between formal and informal architecture. He emphasizes that contemporary cities should be elastic to accommodate the changing roles of people and society in a city and allow for dynamic appropriation of spaces. The book looks straight into the eyes of cities in transition and addresses its polarising character. “Here the idea of a city is not a grand vision but a grand adjustment.”

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10. Graphics for Urban Design – Bally Meeda

Visual Representation is the key to showcase the ideas, concepts, and vision of a project for architects and designers. The book is a practical guide to making hand-rendered as well as computer-aided graphics for urban design projects. It is easy to understand and illustrates a mixture of graphic techniques for expressing ideas during the design process. It is a handy resource for students, academicians as well as practitioners and provides the needed tips and tricks to making graphics legible. From design process drawings to final documents, the book has it all covered.

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For those of you looking for more content on urban design can refer to other books by the above-mentioned authors, each of whom has worked extensively in the field and have several publications to their name. 

Ayushi Desai
Author

Ayushi is a young architect and designer hailing from Gujarat who believes in research driven designs. Cities, Art and Architecture sum up her exploratory drive. She has been working on her research on 'Temporary interventions in Urban Spaces' while running her own free-lance practice in Architecture. Meeting different people, reading books and digging lesser known food joints leave her buzzing.

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