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An Urbanism Reading List for Los Angeles


noun ur·ban·ism \ˈər-bə-ˌni-zəm\


Merriam-Webster online dictionary:
1: the characteristic way of life of city dwellers
2a : the study of the physical needs of urban societies
  b : city planning
3: urbanization

Urbanism is the study of the characteristic ways of interaction of inhabitants of towns and cities (urban areas) with the built environment. It is a direct component of disciplines such as urban planning (the physical design and management of urban structures) and urban sociology (the study of urban life and culture).

“Urbanism” is a hot topic these days in most large cities, both in the U.S. and worldwide. This includes, most especially, Los Angeles, where questions of urban development, housing, lack of housing, neighborhoods, zoning, preservation, transit and more loom larger and larger in our conversations with each passing day.

A few days ago, we saw an interesting reading list on the subject of urbanism that was put together for the city of Boston as it undertakes a massive rewrite of its city plans.  Los Angeles has been embroiled in a similar effort for a few years now, and may currently be in the deepest part of the slog.  We have not only a full-blown code rewrite – ReCodeLA – in the works, but also additional ordinances on Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, Small Lot Subdivisions, a new Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, a Neighborhood Conservation Ordinance, a Short-Term Rentals Ordinance, Community Plan rewrites, Transit Neighborhood Plans, a Citywide Sign Ordinance,  an Accessory Dwelling Unit law, an Unapproved Dwelling Unit ordinance, and scores of huge, individual development cases grinding their way through various planning bodies.

So we wondered what a similar “urbanism” reading list might look like for Los Angeles.  What would planners, architects, and knowledgeable book lovers recommend that others read to get up to speed on current urban development trends, lingo, ideas, and inspiration…as well as works that seem particularly good at defining and encapsulating the unique history, character and spirit of our complex and fascinating metropolis – the ever-evolving zeitgeist – which these various pieces of legislation are attempting to capture and shape for the future.

Here, broken down into several basic categories, are the works we turned up.

The Must-Read Duo of Los Angeles Urbanism (mentioned by almost everyone we asked)

City of QuartzMike Davis
Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies
– Reyner Banham

Urban Planning (General)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs
The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us – Joel Kotkin
Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World – Ross Chapin
The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History – Delores Hayden
Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream – Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time – Jeff Speck

Architecture and the Built Environment (General)

The Architecture of Happiness – Alain de Botton
American Bungalow Style – Robert Winter and Alexander Vertikoff
Batchelder: Tilemaker – Robert Winter
A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture – Virginia Savage McAlester and Lee McAlester
Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use and Avoid – Marianne Cusato
Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California – Robert Winter, ed.

Architecture and the Built Environment (L.A-Specific)

Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970 – Thomas S. Hines
The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century – Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja
Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles – Stefanos Polyzoides, Roger Sherwood, James Tice
Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments – Virginia Heckert
Every Building on the Sunset Strip – Ed Ruscha
The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles 1850-1930 – Robert M. Fogelson
Houses of Los Angeles (Vol. 1, 1885-1919 and Vol. 2, 1920-1935) – Sam Watters
The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles – Kazys Varnelis
Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles – Christopher James Alexander
Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles – William Deverell and Greg Hise
The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown – Robert Berger and Ann Conser
Los Angeles: The End of the Rainbow – Merry Ovnick
Los Angeles Plays Itself – Thom Anderson, dir. (film/DVD)
Never Built Los Angeles – Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell
Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future – Wim de Wit, Christopher James Alexander
Planning Los Angeles – David C. Sloane
Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City
– Robert Gottlieb
Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles – William Fulton
Rock the Boat – Thea Mercouffer, dir. (film/DVD)
Shotgun Freeway: Drives Through Lost L.A. – Morgan Neville, dir. (film/DVD)
Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles – David L. Ulin
Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin, Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton and Silent Visions: Discovering Hollywood Through the Films of Harold Lloyd – John Bengston
Then & Now: Hollywood Boulevard, 1973-2004  – Ed Ruscha
Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles – Jonathan Richmond
Views of Los Angeles – Gernot Kuehn and William Burnett
Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles – J. Eric Lynxweiler

Other (Non-Architecture) L.A.-Specific Non-Fiction

4:31: Images of the 1994 Los Angeles Earthquake – Staff of the Los Angeles Times
Adobe Days
Sarah Bixby Smith
And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of 12 Gifted Inner City Students
 – Miles Corwin
Chavez Ravine – Ry Cooder (music album/CD)
Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in Los Angeles – Jonathan Gold
Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir – D.J. Waldie
L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City – John Buntin
Los Angeles in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City of Los Angeles – Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration
Mother on FireSandra Tsing Loh
O.J.: Made in America
(television documentary series)
Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story
– Michael Datcher
Slouching Towards Bethlehem – Joan Didion
Southern California in the ’50s – Charles Phoenix
Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 – Anna Deavere Smith (play)
Walking L.A. – Erin Mahoney Harris
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson

L.A.-Specific Fiction

Ask the Dust John Fante
American Dream Machine – Matthew Specktor
The Barbarian Nurseries
– Hector Tobar
Dead Boys – Richard Lange
How to Get into The Twin Palms – Karolina Waclawiak
Johnny Future – Steve Abee
Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis
The Madonnas of Echo Park – Brando Skyhorse
My Hollywood – Mona Simpson
Play It as It Lays – Joan Didion
She – Michelle Latiolais
Southland – Nina Revoyr
Stone Arabia – Dana Spiotta
Tapping the Source – Kem Nunn
What Makes Sammy Run? – Budd Schulberg
Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology – David L. Ulin, ed.

Authors Whose General Body of Work Captures the Spirit of Los Angeles
(Read almost anything they’ve ever written!)

Paul Beatty (start with The Sellout and The White Boy Shuffle)
Raymond Chandler
Michael Connelly
James Ellroy (start with the “L. A. Quartet” – The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, White Jazz; also, My Dark Places)
Chester Himes (start with If He Hollers, Let Him Go)
Walter Mosley (start with the Easy Rawlins mysteries)

Special thanks to Tim Deegan, Audrey Morris, Laura Foti Cohen…and Liz Newstat at Chevalier’s Books (where many, if not most, of these titles are available) for their recommendations.  We invite anyone reading this to submit further suggestions in the comments below.  Happy reading! (And, yes, by the way, it IS National Read a Book Day today!)

[9/6/16 6:00 p.m. – This story has been updated to include recommendations from Deike Peters, Assistant Professor of Environmental Planning and Practice at Soka University.]

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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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  1. Wonderful list and great article! I always recommend “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander He looks at repetitive dimensions and how rhythm builds neighborhoods. Very valuable, particularly in looking at continuity and infill issues.


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