Today’s episode follows an interesting literary path. The first stop in that path is a book written in 1974 by Robert Caro, called The Power Broker. It’s one of the most brilliant biographies of all time. If you’re looking for a magnificently researched, and totally gripping book on the life of one of the most influential men of the 20th century, then this the one. It’s the story of Robert Moses.
That name may not mean much to a lot of people but in short, he’s basically the man who built New York City from the 1930s to the 1960s. Through a finely tuned network of money and power that he put together, he was able to decide, pretty much single-handedly, what was built in New York: roads, parks, bridges, buildings. Robert Moses’ ideas started spinning out of control and he developed visions of massive highways ploughing through New York and to do that, he was going to tear down vast neighbourhoods of the city.
The person who ignited the opposition to Robert Moses was a journalist and urban activist called Jane Jacobs. In 1961, she wrote a book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in which she outlined a very different path for urban planning, one that was more focused on organic human interaction, based on historic urban traditions, as opposed to abstract planning based on data.
I was curious to know how she and her book were perceived today in the urban planning community and how this book had aged. I was very lucky to connect with today’s guest, Chuck Marohn who is the founder of Strong Towns, a movement based in Minnesota, dedicated to helping cities and towns in the United States achieve financial resiliency through civic engagement, and seeks to improve communities through urban planning concepts such as walkability, mixed-use zoning, and infill development. Strong Towns manages a blog and a podcast of the same name, hosted by Chuck.
In today’s episode, we discuss the influence of Jane Jacobs’ book, the context that surrounded its publication and how the urban planning debate has evolved over time and what’s at stake for cities today.
The most brilliant book: Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs (1969)
His favorite book I’ve never heard of: The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas (1974)
The best book he’s read in the last 12 months: “The One: How an Ancient Idea Holds the Future of Physics” by Henrich Päs (2023)
The book he found disappointing in the last 12 months: “Doughnut Economics” by Kate Raworth (2017)
The book that he would take to a desert island: The Bible
The book that changed his mind: “What the Dog Saw”, by Malcolm Gladwell (2009)
Chuck's Book: https://amzn.eu/d/4tpGm1I
Strong Towns Website: https://www.strongtowns.org/contributors-journal/charles-marohn
Follow me @litwithcharles for more book reviews and recommendations!