The Conundrum


David Owen

Every device I own today is vastly more efficient than it’s 1970s equivalent, yet my energy use, along with the country’s and the world’s has soared. That’s because we almost always reinvest efficiency gains in additional consumption. The better we get at doing things the more things we do. That’s The Conundrum.

The Triumph of the City


Edward L. Glaeser, Penguin Press, 2011

Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace. The streets of Florence gave us the Renaissance, and the streets of Birmingham gave us the Industrial Revolution. The great prosperity of contemporary London and Bangalore and Tokyo comes from their ability to produce new thinking. Wandering these cities—whether down cobblestone sidewalks or grid-cutting cross streets, around roundabouts or under freeways—is to study nothing less than human progress.

For a talk by Edward Glaeser at UC San Diego summarising this book click here. For a discussion of Glaeser’s work on eliminating barriers to innovation for food trucks by The Urbanist, Alan Davies click here.

Cities for People


Jan Gehl, Island Press, 2010

Now, after many years, a great deal of knowledge has been amassed on the connection between physical form and human behavior. We have extensive information about what can and should be done. At the same time cities and their residents have become very active in crying out for people-oriented city planning. In recent years many cities in all parts of the world have made a serious effort to realize the dream of better cities for people. Many inspiring projects and visionary city strategies point in new directions after years of neglect.


The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces


William H. Whyte, Project for Public Spaces, 1980

It is often assumed that children play in the street because they lack playground space. But many children play in the streets because they like to. One of the best play areas we came across was a block on 101st Street in East Harlem. It had its problems, but it worked. The street itself was the play area. Adjoining stoops and fire escapes provided prime viewing across the street and were highly  functional for mothers and older people. There are other factors at work, too, and had we been more prescient, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time spent later looking at plazas. Though we did not know it then, this block had within it all the basic elements of a successful urban place. 

For more from Project for Public Spaces, the nonprofit organisation founded by William H. Whyte, and the work they are doing around placemaking, click here.

Invisible Cities


Italo Calvino, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974

Marco resumed saying, enumerating names and customs and wares of a great number of lands. His repertory could be called inexhaustible, but now he was the one who had to give in. Dawn had broken when he said: “Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”

“There is still one of which you never speak.”

Marco Polo bowed his head.

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”

The emperor did not turn a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.”

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

The Death and Life of Great American Cities


Jane Jacobs, Vintage, 1961

Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.​