5 Must Read Books on Public Spaces

This article will highlight the main books and readings related to public spaces. There are many books that can be chosen on urbanism themes but these books focus particularly on how to design and create better public spaces for all. Although they mostly focus on the western cities, there is a lot that the Global South can learn from them as well. The books will be beneficial to anyone who wants to create better neighbourhood and lifestyles for city planning and city living.

Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs 

Jane Jacob’s famous book revolutionized city planning, particularly in getting more pedestrianized spaces in New York City. This book is her first and most popular book relating to public spaces. She speaks about sidewalks and the need to stop building bridges and highways which was what Robert Moses wanted to do. Her fight against Moses is understood through this book, and her views about cities being places for people rather than cars was revolutionary. Many movements and organisations started through the inspiration of this book, for instance, the Placemaking movement. There are many more recent books that specifically concentrate on public spaces but this book was a pioneer in initiating the conversation in public spaces.

Related: Jane Jacob’s vision for cities

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte

This book which has been made into a film, shows the details of people’s behaviours in public spaces. For anyone interested in human geography or psychology this book is a must read because it is one of the first of its kind to detail how humans act in the public realm. Previously, it wasn’t thought of as being important to observe people in public, but the ways in which people behave in public is radically different to private spheres. Being in a public space also allows for conversations, meeting new people and getting a feel for the sense of place. The social life of people in public spaces is detailed and explained intricately so that people understand the importance of public spaces.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery

In this book, Montgomery gives an overview of what makes a happy city and how public spaces can contribute towards making a city happier. He gives personal experiences with the Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa Londoño and how he has transformed the city which was one of the poorest and worn torn city in the world. Montgomery argues if Penalosa could transform Bogota through his vision for public spaces, then surely, other countries who are rich and poor can aspire to do the same. Bogata is known as one of the happiest places to be and has the best public transport after Penalosa became its mayor. There is a lot to learn from this book, and it is especially important for people in municipal authority to learn what is important in cities and how to make a more humanised city for people.

Related: Public Sculptures can make an Impact on People

Life Between Buildings by Jan Gehl

Jan Gehl is one of the most well-known influencers in architecture and planning today. His experiments in Copenhagen has proven that public spaces can be beneficial for humans. His observations indicate that public spaces that provide good amenities such as good seating, walking facilities, public art and eateries such as cafes and restaurant can really improve people’s health and lifestyle. He has also advocated for cycling and walking in cities as he thinks it leads to better health than depending on the car. Gehl has written other books as well but this book is one of his first ones that give a lot of detail on how people use public spaces and what makes a good public space. It is a good book for urban design students as well as planners to understand the future of urbanism and how to cater to people’s needs in public spaces.

Rethinking Urban Parks by Setha M. Low

This book provides a good overview of urban parks and how they are used. The importance of parks is underrepresented in cities, but most of the big metropolitan cities have a major park or a landscape that people generally use with lots of greeneries. Parks can help people’s wellbeing including alter moods and help psychological distress. It is said that when people visit parks or gardens often, they feel more in tune with nature and this helps them think more clearly. Although this book focuses on New York City which provides ample parks, other car-reliant cities are not as lucky as the big apple. However, this book sets a good example for city mayors around the world to implement more parks and provide more amenities for their residents through public spaces.

5 Must Read Books on Public Spaces


The above five books are the leading books in public spaces, mostly focusing on the western world. Countries like India can learn from these books to know how to implement more public spaces in their cities. Change usually occurs more systematically in the developed world, but if the governing bodies around the world read these books and took it in their hands to create change for our cities and people’s wellbeing in the cities, then these books would have served their purpose.