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 the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.