The best way to learn about placemaking is to jump (figuratively) into the fray in your neighbourhood or even take on a project on your own. But if you’re new to placemaking how will you know where to begin or who to look to for inspiration? Podcasts and websites are great but it’s hard to beat a book for an always accessible, low-tech and annotatable resource. Here are seven titles to get you started.
1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs (1961)
Despite being over 50 years old, this book remains a perennial favourite that speaks to issues of concern in cities today as much as it did when it was published in 1961. Interest in it has doubtless been spurred by the recent release of the film Citizen Jane – Battle for the City which focuses on the period of Jane Jacobs’s life when she sparred with New York urban planner Robert Moses. It’s not impossible to find it second hand but more recent reprints are available through Russell’s books. It is certainly not without critics but like many timeless works in a variety of fields its ‘good bones’ continue to show through while some of its language and details fail to connect with contemporary audiences.
2. Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design – Charles Montgomery (2013)
Charles Montgomery’s bio is rather elusive in describing his background but, much like Jane Jacobs, the proof of his pudding is in his writing (and work). He is also right in our backyard splitting his time between East Vancouver (he makes that distinction) and Mexico City. Montgomery came to Victoria in February 2015 to give a talk in the Atrium (800 Yates Street) that was attended by about 230 people. His book looks at the interactions between urban design and happiness and how simple, inexpensive and environmentally-friendly changes can lead to happier and healthier residents.
3. Tactical Urbanism: Short-term action for long-term change – Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia (2015)
A shortish (256 pages), practical read with lots of case studies to inspire you to bite off a local morsel of placemaking in your neighbourhood. You can dip in and out of this book picking up how-to instructions for a variety of projects big and small – many built using inexpensive, rough-and-ready materials for installations that are meant to be temporary, provocative and often more than a little bit controversial. Both Lydon and Garcia are principals at Street Plans; Lydon leads their New York office while Garcia fills the same role for the Miami office.
4. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction – Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein (1977)
This seminal book remains popular despite being more than 40 years old. It is the final volume in a trilogy that seeks to lay “the basis for an entirely new approach to architecture” (according to the University of Oxford Press website). It is a practical how to book that the Amazon review says can be used by everyone from homeowners to city planners to “identify extant patterns in their own design projects and use these patterns to create a language of their own. Extraordinarily thorough, coherent, and accessible, this book has become a bible for homebuilders, contractors, and developers who care about creating healthy, high-level design”. But it is also a book to use as a form of meditative exploration as this New York Times review makes clear “”A wise old owl of a book, one to curl up with in an inglenook on a rainy day…. Alexander may be the closest thing home design has to a Zen master.”
5, 6 and 7
Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space – Jan Gehl (1971 (Danish), 1987 (first English translation), 2011 (new edition))
Cities for People – Jan Gehl (2010)
How to Study Public Life: Methods in Urban Design – Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre (2013)
Jan Gehl is a Danish architect and urban designer who will soon turn 81 (September 17). Wikipedia says of his career that it has “focused on improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist”. He credits Jane Jacobs for introducing him to the importance of looking at cities and public spaces from the perspective of human scale. He completed his formal education in 1966 and the firm he cofounded, Gehl Architects, has offices in Copenhagen, San Francisco and New York. He is an in-demand consultant around the world and has been involved in urban (re)design projects in New York, London, Melbourne and many more. Learn more about his ideas from his books as well as from his information-packed website that lists upcoming speaking engagements, details of current and past projects and learning opportunities such as summer masterclasses (sounds like a great reason to go to Copenhagen – as if you needed one!).
Of course there are tens (hundreds?) more of titles that could find a place on your bookshelf and doubtless there will be more to come as today’s young(er) placemakers hit their stride and decide to present their ideas, experiences and successes (and failures) in book form. Urban planner Brent Toderian (who we hosted for “Walk the Talk” in November 2015) started a Twitter hashtag, #urbanistbookclub, that you may want to follow for more book ideas.
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