Our 13 Favorite Books of 2013

Bruce Katz and
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University
Jennifer Bradley

December 31, 2013

Since our own book, The Metropolitan Revolution, was published in June, we’ve encountered many other great books and amazing authors, who have inspired us, challenged us, and generally made us think. As 2013 comes to a close, here are 13 books (and a bonus e-book) you should investigate if you want to know more about why cities and metros matter, about the magnitude of the challenges that they are taking on, and about how they can do better.

1. William Antholis, Inside Out, India and China: Local Politics Goes Global. Antholis describes how India and China are becoming metropolitan nations, with an abundance of policy and economic innovation happening at the local level. His guide to the metropolitan intricacies and diversities of these fast growing countries (and emerging markets) comes at exactly the right time for U.S. metro leaders looking to connect across borders.

2. Ben Barber, If Mayors Ruled the World. Not only does Barber have the best title of the year, he has the most sweeping scope. He deftly shows how mayors across the globe are not only solving practical problems, they are also grappling with some of the biggest, most enduring questions in political philosophy.

3. Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for Urban America. Chakrabarti’s beautifully designed manifesto is totally winning, with excellent infographics, and lively pop culture references. This the kind of book that reconnects urbanists with the passion that brought them into this field in the first place — and helps others understand why urbanists care so much about what they do.

4. Danny Dorling, Population 10 Billion. Dorling lays out not only different population scenarios, he also shows readers how to interpret these scenarios, and other stories people tell about the future of the planet. This sentence, “Being afraid only gets you so far; being determined moves you further on; being better informed can give you hope,” should be the policy wonk credo.

5. Thomas Dyja, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. “Understanding America requires understanding Chicago,” Dyja declares, and then proceeds to argue his case. While William Cronin’s magnificent book Nature’s Metropolis showed readers how Chicago was the iconic American city of the 19th century, Dyja explains how Chicago was the incubator for American culture in the 20th century.

6. Leigh Gallagher, The End of the Suburbs. For decades, the traditional suburb seemed inevitable the perfect example of market satisfaction of desires. Gallagher’s smart and lively book explains that the suburbs were a product of policy, not just preference (updating Kenneth Jackson’s arguments in Crabgrass Frontier). She argues that, like cities before them, suburbs are shifting and changing to keep up with how people really live.

7. Victor Hwang & Greg Horowitt, The Rainforest. The secret to building the next Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurship and innovation depend on networks and relationships based on trust and reciprocity. Based on their own venture capital experience, Hwang and Horowitt explain why having the right raw ingredients for a flourishing company, community, or project is not enough — you need the right ecosystem.

8. Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. In this country, there are more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities. Yet few suburbs have the tools to support poor people and connect them to jobs and services. Kneebone and Berube do an outstanding job cataloging the demographic changes of the suburbs and showing how places from Seattle to Houston are meeting this new reality.

9. Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State. You should thank government, in addition to Steve Jobs, for your beloved iPhone. This impassioned book highlights that, although we might think of government as bureaucratic, hidebound, and backwards, it is actual a major engine of innovation, risk taking and creativity.

10. George Packer, The Unwinding. Packer’s epic traces the changes to our country over the past several decades and documents ills of the U.S. economy post-Great Recession. It is a sobering, compelling glimpse into the causes of our national housing crisis, stagnant economy, and rising inequality, while still retaining an appreciation for the optimism and entrepreneurship of its subjects.

11. Cass Sunstein, Simpler: The Future of Government. This book is an oxymoron: an adventure story about government regulation. Sunstein uses his experience as head of an obscure but very important federal office to show how attention to behavioral economics can vastly improve the way government sets rules, defines choices, and improves people’s wellbeing. His test bed is the federal government, but these lessons apply equally well to states and municipalities.

12. Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Too many analyses of American education tell readers what to do. Amanda Ripley shows us what other countries do, and indicates that it’s quite possible for American schools, from poor and rich neighborhoods to do better. One of her best observations: we should celebrate the challenge of math as much as we applaud the challenges of competitive sports.

13. Witold Rybczynski, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit. Rybczynski’s book gracefully bridges the gap between those who see the city-as-people and those who see the city-as-buildings, by explaining why buildings matter to people, and how they shape our experience. Great architecture, in his telling, is the three dimensional expression of great ideas.

14. (Bonus e-book) Aaron M. Renn, The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City. We don’t always agree with Aaron Renn, better known as The Urbanophile, but we learn a lot from his smart and well-researched observations. He’s a tireless advocate of getting the basics right, and making sure that cities don’t become precious playgrounds for the one percent. Read this book, and everything else he writes.

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