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The COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movements that erupted in its wake shone a spotlight on issues that have long impacted the built environment. Below, we round up three books that explore the topics that are shaping contemporary urbanism: equity, accessibility and technology.

1
Who Is the City For?
Book cover of Who is the City For? by Blair Kamin

Over his 28-year tenure at the Chicago Tribune, architecture critic Blair Kamin witnessed the city’s transformation “from a declining industrial colossus to a dynamic yet deeply troubled post-industrial powerhouse.” This anthology groups his columns, circa 2011 to 2021, into five thematic sections. The first critiques controversial Chicago projects by presidents Obama and Trump, while the second examines the city’s inequitable investment in transit and public spaces. From there, Kamin illustrates the qualities that make buildings — from museums to flagship stores — good citizens.

He rounds out the book with chapters on historic preservation and the differing approaches of mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot. A case for the value of architectural criticism, the book urges readers “to be more than consumers who passively accept the buildings that are handed to them.”

2
The Architecture of Disability
Book cover of The Architecture of Disability by David Gissen

David Gissen — a disabled designer and professor at Parsons School of Design — considers accessible design approaches belittling. Through case studies, he challenges these solutions, demonstrating how historic spaces such as medieval streets and natural landscapes may in fact be easier to navigate than those modified in the name of inclusivity. Gissen goes on to unpack the ways that a narrow view of the human experience can lead to alienating features (such as dramatic staircases) that aestheticize certain abilities.

Rather than treating disability as a problem to be solved, he focuses on what can be gained by adopting the lens of impairment to better integrate disabled people (a term that activists have reclaimed) into architecture’s design and production. His approach is even applied to the book’s layout: The image captions are written in the style of alt text.

3
Dream States
Book cover of Dream States by John Lorinc

Recently awarded the Balsillie Prize for Public Policy, this book lifts the smart city’s utopian veil. Journalist John Lorinc explains how urban centres evolved from clusters of human beings into the technology-mediated world of today. From sensors and drones to intelligent transportation systems and data visualization tools, gizmos that promise efficiency and optimization come under his scrutiny as he examines their social, political and logistical implications. Global case studies look at projects like Sidewalk Labs’ controversial Quayside development in Toronto, a “living urban experiment” that ultimately never came to fruition.

Demonstrating the dangers of unchecked technological progress, Lorinc explains how concerns like surveillance and data insecurity also apply to our post-pandemic world. In 2020, Google released reports about community mobility trends with the goal of informing public health policy — highlighting the ways that smart devices have reshaped the urban experience right before our eyes.

3 Must-Read Books for Urbanism Enthusiasts

From accessibility to smart city technology, these books unpack the issues facing today’s urban centres.

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