A Personal Canon: Eric Mumford on Five Influential Texts

Here is my selection of five books that have defined and redefined urbanism since 1850…

Camillo Sitte, City Building according to artistic principles (1889)

As an arts and crafts educator in Vienna in the 1880s, concerned about what he saw as the soulless and mechanical extensions of European cities, Sitte first put forward the idea that urban areas could be consciously designed to produce emotional and esthetic effects. He argued that such artistically designed areas, often evoking enclosed medieval town squares, should be built to allow for some respite from the many then-new commercially oriented housing and retail areas, whose design was then being codified as the profession of Städtebau (City Building).  

Raymond Unwin, Town Planning in Practice (1909)

By 1900, both Sitte’s work and the more technical Germanic focus on legislating urban and suburban form became influential on the emerging field of town planning in Britain, initially inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City idea. In that context, Unwin brought together Howard’s vision of self-contained live-work communities of 32,000 people each, surrounded by farm fields and natural areas and linked together by rail lines, with both Sir Patrick Geddes’s ideas of bio-regionalism, and the technical and aesthetic aspects of Städtebau. Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice went beyond Sitte’s rather narrow focus on the design of enclosed plazas, like those of medieval Italian and Germanic cities, to offer strategies for designing a range of affordable working class housing types, organized in groups with ample green space, sited within larger urban environments linked by transportation.

Unwin’s work was contemporary with the first large scale planning legislation in the English speaking world, the starting point for much later planning. These efforts were intended to insure sunlight, ventilation, and access to recreation for all, at a time when most industrial workers lived in overcrowded and unsanitary housing without plumbing, close to smoky factories. They were the basis for the British town planning legislation of 1909, and they significantly changed the course of urban development worldwide thereafter. These ideas then also strongly influenced the more architecturally and politically radical modern architecture that was then built in Europe in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, these largely successful efforts to create (in part) healthier metropolitan environments were developed in an era of “scientific racism,” where white Europeans saw themselves as racially superior to others. By the 1910s, efforts were underway in the United States to legislate segregated environments through residential single use zoning, and to clear out and rebuild urban areas considered to be “blighted,” a term which was first defined in 1912 by city planners as areas where property values were flat or declining.

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

By the late 1950s, the often destructive outcomes of modern planners’ efforts to clear “obsolete and blighted” areas in North American cities led Jane Jacobs, a New York architectural journalist, to argue that such planning, much of it then being done by Robert Moses in New York, but usually identified with the mostly unbuilt urban visions of Le Corbusier, had produced worse outcomes than the slums that it had replaced. Her work launched a new era of skepticism about master planning, as Jacobs’ suggested that individual urban residents living in dense, walkable neighborhoods of varied, mostly historic architecture with active and diverse streetlife, could better plan for themselves than architects and other urban experts.

Ian L. McHarg, Design with Nature (1969)

The mass appeal of Jacobs’ position, and others with related views from the late 1960s down to the 1990s, has somewhat overshadowed another important planning direction that appeared in 1969, the landscape architect Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature. McHarg’s focus was on planning the massive regional development then happening around most major cities, and he influentially argued that such development should be planned in a more ecologically sensitive way. He pioneered the use of multiple same scale maps of geographic features such as aquifers, rock formations, and watersheds, as well as the use of matrices and an early version of GIS, to identify different key factors in site selection. McHarg accurately foresaw that suburban-type development was going to continue anyway, and could not be stopped altogether to preserve important natural areas essential to continued human habitation on earth.

Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: design and capitalist development (1976)

In the 1970s, yet another important direction for the field emerged in the writings of the Italian Marxist historian Manfredo Tafuri, first published in English in 1976. In Architecture and Utopia, Tafuri critically examined the history of architects’ efforts from the eighteenth century to the modern era to use design to reform modern industrial societies. He persuasively argued that under capitalist conditions of profit maximization, all such efforts could never fully succeed. His pessimistic conclusion was that architects could only seek to design “form without utopia,” and not attempt to transform modern societies with architecture. This critical position has led to a variety of design directions over the past fifty years. These have included Aldo Rossi’s effort to create an architecture based on the existing typologies of historic cities, where urban building forms remain constant over time, even as their programmatic uses change. This direction also inspired successful efforts in West Berlin in the late 1970s to make the “inner city a place to live,” by building whole districts of street-oriented lowrise residential mixed use buildings.  During this same era, for some in urban design, the writings of the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre and others put a new emphasis on urban residents’ “right to the city.” This has led to the widespread questioning of professional architecture and urban design practices in themselves as obstacles to social progress.

Eric Mumford is Rebecca and John Voyles Professor of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. His books include Designing the Modern City: Urbanism Since 1850, Defining Urban Design: CIAM Architects and the Formation of a Discipline, 1937–69, and Josep Lluís Sert: The Architect of Urban Design, 1953–1969


Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

McHarg, Ian L. Design with Nature. Garden City, New York: Natural History Press, 1969.

Sitte, Camillo. Der Städtebau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen (City Building according to artistic principles), 1889.

Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1976.

Unwin, Raymond. Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs. London: Adelphi Terrace, 1909.

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