Here’s CityMetric’s summer reading list

A book! On a beach! Who'd have guessed that'd be the title illustration for this piece? Image: Usestangerines via Flickr

It's been a largely wet, dreary summer here in London, and if you're sensible you'll have booked yourself a sweet escape to some sunnier clime – be it Cornwall or Santorini. No doubt that trip will involve lounging by the pool (or the secluded Cornish cove) for hours on end, reading a book and sipping some beverage or other. 

But what to read? Contemporary fiction is exhausting and overrated, you've covered the classics already, and there's no point reading political books as everything's changed too much by the time you get to chapter two, anyway. 

Fear not: here's a collection of the best summer reads for fans of urbanism, infrastucture, cities, public transport, and all such good things. 

A Walk In The Park: The Life and Times of a People's Institution, Travis Elborough

What good is a city with no breathing space? From the historic (and etymological) origins of parks in manorial Norman Britain to the foundations of royal forests and the formalisation of public parks in the 18th and 19th centuries, this book covers the full story of the lowly but vital park. And if you can't live without a political diatribe in your tome of choice, the afterword is full of the predictable rampages against austerity, Donald Trump, and privatisation. 

Mmm, green. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Historical, green, everyone loves a good park.

Cons: Touches of soapbox, tangetial at times, dangerous whiffs of NIMBYism. 

Fun tidbit: Charles II grew rather fond and jealous of Versailles during his exile on the Continent and shoved a Versailles-style avenue of trees in St Jamess Park, along with a long, fenced court for playing a game called Pelle Melle. This game inspired the names of Pall Mall and The Mall, in the area. 

Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital, Franz Hessel (translated by Amanda DeMarco)

1920s Berlin. Christopher Isherwoods playground, the Weimar Germany of culture, glamour, cultish art-films like Metropolis, and the faint but definite smell of Nazism – the full package is laid in this deliciously colourful, cosmopolitan book. With essays divided into geographical chunks, you can tackle the book in daily doses – if youre one its adoring followers – or peruse it in bitesize chunks from afar if youre not. Its more than just a travel guide, though.

Its got definite touches of novel and confessional to it, too, which make it all the more enjoyable, if a little outlandish. 

Comes with groovy cover imagery. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Look intelligent, Berlin is fabulous, historical chic. 

Cons: At times pretentious, lots of Hessels spots dont exist anymore, not that fun to read if you're not in or into Berlin. 

Quote to fire at ex-London-hipster Berlin emigrés: Theres really no reason to visit Neukölln for its own sake.

Night Trains: The Rise And Fall Of The Sleeper, Andrew Martin

Trains! Finally. For true train fans, the night train has a particularly seductive mystique. The son of a British Rail employee, Andrew Martin chronicles the long historical arc of the European night train via todays Eurostar, the chat-up venue of the Blue Trains bar car in the 1950s, the Orient Express, and Agatha Christie herself. It's an attempt to relive the glory days of these great locomotives – as much cultural landmarks as mere timetabled services – through their modern counterparts.

Obviously, this is equal parts nostalgia, appreciation of modernity, and grumpish growling, but Martin has great insight, and knows an awful lot about trains. 

A seductive billow of smoke. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Trains, fuzzy European feelings, chic mid-century vibes.

Cons: May elicit sad European feelings, not enough pictures, can feel too much like youre reading about someone else having fun on trains youd like to be on.

Enjoyable moment: A visit to Hell Station, just around the corner from Trondheim Airport in Norway. 

Wild Ride: Inside Uber's Quest for World Domination, Adam Lashinsky

Uber is the tech worlds (and the urbanism worlds) marmite, so if you're going to love or hate something so passionately, you might as well try to get clued up on its history. Lashinsky plots the rise of Uber, and its seemingly inevitable global takeover, through exclusive interviews with Uber's founder and ex-CEO, Travis Kalanick, and other bits and bobs along the way. 

Nothing like the sweet smell of allegations of misogyny and exploitation to get you up in the morning. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Important subject matter, lengthy and exclusive interviews, not too long.

Cons: A little glorifying at times, history may not be kind to this book, things around Uber are moving a little too quickly. 


Cringe-inducing closing line: Adversity, after all, had become part of the journey. 

The New Urban Crisis: Gentrification, Housing Bubbles, Growing Inequality, and What We Can Do About It, Richard Florida

Though written from an American perspective for a US audience, this book clearly has vast significance on our side of the pond – and Florida write an appropriately-sized preface to the UK edition that claims London is, in fact, the epicentre of what I have come to term the New Urban Crisis. There are graphs, charts, and maps galore, and a healthy dose of case studies in specific cities and neighbourhoods alongside more generalising pictures based heavily in facts and studies.

The book closes with a manifesto of sorts, firing of a series of guiding principles for policy makers that are reasonably hard to disagree with: make clustering work for us and not against us, invest in the infrasturcture for density and growth, build more affordable rental housing, turn low-wage service jobs into middle-class work, tackle poverty by investing in people and places, lead a global effort to build prosperous cities, empower cities and communities. The usual sort of stuff. 

BIG WORDS little words, Shard on the side. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Comes endorsed by Michael Bloomberg, hits all the big issues, good basing in facts and pleasing charts. 

Cons: Can veer towards tub-thumping, very American-focussed.

Best map: London's neighbourhoods broken down geographically into primarily creative class, primarily service class, and primarily working class, produce by the Martin Prosperity Institute using Office for National Statistics data. 

Brutal London, Simon Phipps

A classic. Though detractors would call it a coffee table book, at best, its just as fun to take a slice of Londons Brutalist corners with you to the beaches of the Algarve. Beautiful black-and-white photography throughout pairs with sparing touches of text at the front and back of the book to please both lookers and readers.

Brutalist works are divided by London Borough, and each section comes with a handy map so you can easily locate your nearest local slice of Brutalist goodness if you fancy an excursion. If you hate Brutalism, look away now. 

Calm down, Brutalism fanatics. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Beautiful Brutalism, great photography, good for sun-tired eyes as there aren't that many words 

Cons: Horrible Brutalism, barely any words, the black-and-white effect can get a little monotonous after your 37th hi-rise. 

Fun tidbit: Thamesmeads Southmere Lake – which Stanley KubrickA Clockwork Orange uses in a particularly gruesome scene to violently dunk the droogs underwater  was originally intended to mirror the calming effect of water in Swedish housing developments. 

Seeking New York: The Stories Behind The Historic Architecture Of Manhattan – One Building At A Time, Tom Miller

The texture and detail of the contents page tells you that this is going to be an enjoyable read. A colour-coded map divides the island of Manhattan up into sections, each with four or so choice architectural intrigues, on a pleasingly small scale. Think Sugar Hill and Bowery, rather than just a vague North of Harlem or Downtown.

The book is full of beautiful sketches of buildings alongside quality colour pictures of sites as they are today, occasionally alongisde historical shots of the buildings or their developers or early owners. Miller goes into great detail with each building he chooses, but manages never to bore.

Whether its witty extractions from the New York Times of the day, or extracts from historical documents pertaining to the original owner or developer of a particular site, he gets behind the archiectural conversation into the personal historical level that makes this more than just an archi-wonks pastime. 

As much an encyclopedia as anything else. Image: Amazon.

Pros: Beautifully laid out, attention to detail, wide range of sources. 

Cons: Several key buildings aren't discussed, and some of the contemporary photography is disappointing. 

Fun tidbit: The death of 14-year-old John McTaggart on February 6, 1903, was blamed on the newly erected Flatiron Building due to the bizarre wind currents its unusual shape occasionally whipped up. The messenger boy was attempting to round the 23rd street point of the building against the wind, Miller writes. After attempting three times, he was reportedly blown into Fifth Avenue and fatally injured by an automobile.” 

Got any others? Tweet us. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.