When I started reading this book, I didn’t intend to review it. It was a birthday gift, and it didn’t seem like it fell in with the other books I’ve reviewed here, which were perhaps weightier or more profound. The 99% Invisible City isn’t that, and that’s precisely why I felt I needed to review it once I was done.
I haven’t actually listened to the podcast 99% Invisible, beyond the excellent TED Talk Roman Mars gave about flag design. A section of this book updates the topics from that talk, including at least one city that was prompted to change their flag because of it. These are the kinds of stories that The 99% Invisible City tells throughout – the big and little ways that design influences and is influenced by urban life.
The book is broken down into chapters that move from small everyday details to the big picture human-driven design that affects our cities. The stories are only a few pages each, and capture anecdotes throughout the history of the designed environment. Even as the later chapters get more esoteric, the authors tie in specifics and the individual choices that led to urban trends that seem bigger than any person.
Stylistically, The 99% Invisible City is exactly what I aspire to in Urban Utopias: big stories told for everyone, revealing the trends that touch urban lives everyday. Each story is short and compelling, drawing on facts to reveal how urban design happens at every level. Even the dust jacket includes snippets of stories from the design of the street corner on the cover – things that you might see every day without a second thought.
The book has a few overlaps with my own writing – one story discusses a video which I cited in my post about Detroit, and the later chapters also discuss a number of cities I’d like to cover later, including Salt Lake City and Barcelona. These are stories about the weird and halfway accidental ways big ideas have pushed cities into new shapes. Even the more ground level chapters tell how the city we see is the results of hundreds and thousands of individual choices, mistakes, and happenstances. Frankly, if you enjoyed anything I’ve written in this blog, I highly recommend The 99% Invisible City.