Metropolis: A Reading List

A crash course in the ways cities influence new ideas–and how new ideas change city life

3 min read

A large building with an exterior designed to look like a row of books.
The parking garage for the city library in Kansas City, Mo. Image credit: Tim Samoff // CC BY-ND 2.0
Metropolis logo featuring a city skyline

We like to compile reading lists for our different sections, and Metropolis is no exception. Here are our recommendations for anyone wishing to explore innovation in cities–and how cities influence innovation.


By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.”

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)


Start Here

This 50-part series from The Guardian “charts the history of the planet’s urbanization.” Highlights include the lost majesty of Benin City and the birth of the science of urban planning in Barcelona.



Possibly the most influential book about urban planning. Jacobs argues against in favor of chaos, complexity, and mixed-use neighborhoods.

Robert Moses, who for half a century was a city planner for (and kind of unelected emperor of) New York City, is the subject of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Moses used his position and political influence to shape American urban design and policy for decades; Caro performs a deft autopsy, illustrating the political power urban planners possess.

Peter Ackroyd covers 2,000 years in nearly half as many pages, showing how a small Roman fishing and trading village grew to become a candidate for the capital city of the world.

A close-up of the Marina City Twin Towers in Chicago, IL, USA.
Image credit: cdelmoral // CC BY 2.0

Shorter Reads

Life & Death & Everything In Between


Infrastructure & Planning

An aerial view of a sea of house roofs in a city.
Image credit: Milo & Silvia in the world // CC BY-SA 2.0

Watch and Listen

  • Soul City,” 99% Invisible [34-minute listen]

This episode of 99% Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars, explores an attempt by a civil rights leader in the 1960s to build a new home for African-Americans wanting to escape their existing deprived communities.

(Other 99% Invisible episodes on the topics of cities worth exploring include: one about an unfinished art school in Havana; another about a skyscraper in NYC that nearly fell over; an episode about how a city can be built in such a way to keep poor and rich people apart without either realizing it.)

  • Jerry Building, BBC [36-minute watch]

Writer and critic Jonathan Meades has made several documentaries for the BBC about architectural history. Jerry Building examines how architecture (and architects) can be used as tools of cultural control and repression within the context of authoritarian states–in this case, Nazi Germany. (He has also covered the same issue in Soviet Russia, as well as gentrification and regeneration, retrofuturism, and the legacy of the Victorians.)

  • Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation [94-minute watch]

Sagrada is a beautifully shot portrait of both Barcelona’s most famous building, and the team of religiously-inspired artisans who have been trying to complete Gaudi’s life’s work.

  • The Pruitt-Igoe Myth [83-minute watch]

The Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis reflected the common belief at the time that modern architecture could alleviate social isses; its failure, and subsequent demolition, has been held up as evidence that large-scale modernist social housing can never work. This documentary pushes back against that notion, exploring the large systemic reasons for the development’s problems.

  • Waste Land [100-minute watch]

The waste of the world has to go somewhere, and in many cities–like Rio de Janeiro–the poor scavenge that waste for survival. Artist Vik Muniz’s portrait of them, and their journey from outsiders to outsider artists, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010.

Metropolis logo featuring a city skyline

This post is part of How We Get To Next’s Metropolis month, looking at the future of cities throughout April 2016. If you liked this story, please click on the orange heart below to recommend it to your friends.