Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities tops the list (fitting as it was itself wrtitten by an amateur urbanist)
1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961). At about 450 pages, “concise” is probably not the most apt description of this book. But, as this is the single best written, most accessible, most compelling book I’ve ever read about cities, I’m willing to forsake the concision criterion even in my first recommendation. If you want to know what can make cities pleasant, safe and interesting places to live, read this book. If you want to read one of the best non-fiction prose stylists of our time, read this book. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. As one Where reader put it: “It’s a great book for explaining why we care about all of this.”
2. The Option of Urbanism by Christopher Leinberger (2007). While not as fun to read as The Death and Life of Great American Cities or The Geography of Nowhere (see below), this slender volume briskly highlights difference between drivable sub-urban development and walkable urban development, and does a good job of explaining the benefits of walkable city neighborhoods. It’s good primer on the basics of density, zoning and the hidden subsidies fueling drivable sub-urban development.
3. The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler (1993). This book is an exploration—and excoriation—of the rise of suburbia and sprawl. It also explains how the more traditional patterns and places of city life and country life are superior to the “geography of nowhere.” Accessible and ferocious.
4. Cities Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz, with Norman Mintz (1998). According to a Where reader, this book is “in the spirit of Jacobs” and discusses “how existing cities can be improved with citizen participation in contrast to destructive master plans.” The book is filled with lots of specific ideas about how to improve downtown areas, all of them lavishly illustrated with real life examples from successful efforts in dozens of cities.
5. How Cities Work by Alex Marshall (2000). Squarely aimed at the lay person, this book seeks to discover what forces shape places and cities—and finds that one of the most powerful forces is political choices, particularly those having to do with transportation policy. A Where reader gave this recommendation: “It’s not comprehensive, of course, but it’s a good snack, possibly the kind that could interest a person in a larger meal.”
For more suggestions, look here