So you want to be an Amateur Earthling too?  Here are a bunch of the memes that made me what I am today:


  • Cities for People, by Jan Gehl:
    A description of the basic human parameters that we should be building our cities around — the range of our senses, the speed at which we can walk or bike, our attention span, etc, and an exploration of what cities built around those parameters end up looking like, and why we might want to do more of that kind of urbanism — human scale cities are more lively, healthier, more egalitarian, cheaper to build and maintain, safer, and vastly more sustainable than typical auto-centric US cities.
  • The Two Mile Time Machine, by Richard B. Alley:
    Looks at our paleoclimatic history via ice core data, and makes the case that the climate is much less stable than the last 10,000 years might lead us to believe.  A cautionary tale about abrupt climate change.
  • Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb:
    My review is actually of The Black Swan, but Fooled by Randomness was better, and they’re essentially the same book.  Taleb talks a lot about how bad we are at evaluating risks associated with improbable events, and understanding the limitations of our knowledge base.  He often applies it to financial examples (he’s a former derivatives trader) but the same lessons should be taken home on climate, tenfold.
  • Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, by that David JC MacKay:
    A great exploration of the scale of our existing energy consumption, and the possible energy sources we might take advantage of going forward.  A must-read for anyone who is pro-arithmetic…
  • Energy Transitions, by Vaclav Smil:
    A technological history of humanity’s energy sources, from oxen to nuclear power plants.  Historically it has taken a very long time to transition and scale energy systems up.
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs:
    Classic book from the 1960s, which turned the tide against Robert Moses and his plans to destroy NYC with freeways.  Detailed exploration of the social lives of cities,  how traditional streets function as public space on a day to day, hour to hour basis, and the reasons why the Modernist dream of towers in parks actually sucks. Unfortunately, though the NYC battle was won, the war was lost in virtually every other city in America.
  • The Prize, by Daniel Yergin:
    A Pulitzer Prize winning history of the oil industry.  Yergin is an industry cheerleader… which makes the horrors he recounts all the more horrible — because you know he’s probably sugar-coating it.
  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes:
    Another Pulitzer Prize winning history, covering a century of physics, history, and people, leading up to the Manhattan Project.  The book is beautiful and horrifying, and the story changed my understanding of the role of volition in the course of human events, and especially technological development.  There are some things which become inevitable.  Every science and engineering student should be required to read this book.
  • Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid and the Future of Electric Utilities, by Peter Fox-Penner:
    Summarizes how we got the utilities we’re stuck with today, and what their business models might look like going forward.
  • The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup:
    This is a tome, but a good one.  See the Sightline blog post series Parking? Lots! for a more concise introduction to the evils of parking policy in the US.  I have two related posts (one from my time at Caltech, and another on Boulder)
  • Nuclear Power, by David Bodansky:
    This is another tome, examining both the challenge and promise of nuclear power, with a healthy dose of technical background.  Probably not worth reading unless you’ve got some undergraduate physics under your belt…
  • Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, by David Montgomery:
    A somewhat muddled history of soil conservation (or the lack thereof), over the last few millennia.
  • Worldchanging 2.0, edited by Alex Steffen:
    A large compendium of essays on a bunch of different topics related to systemic sustainability, with an strong bent toward bright green urbanism.  It’s great because you can turn to almost any page, read an essay, and get something interesting out of it.  It’s not an in-depth exploration of anything in particular, but it’s a great idea buffet.  Steffen is one of the only voices I know that is both optimistic (i.e. we could solve this problem if we wanted to) and realistic (about the scale of our unsustainability).
  • Fighting Traffic, by Peter D. Norton:
    A history of how Motordom took over streets in America between 1915 and 1930.  There was widespread rage against and hatred of the Death Machines, and an early intuitive (and quantitative) understanding that cars and cities are fundamentally incompatible.  Unfortunately we lost that war.

Online Reading:

  • Legalizing Inexpensive Housing at the Sightline Daily:
    A series of posts about occupancy limits, boarding houses, and ADUs — the low hanging fruit of both affordable housing and increasing residential population density, in some cases to the point where neighborhood retail and transit become possible.  The series was also written up in an eBook called Unlocking Home, also available from Sightline.
  • Parking? Lots! at the Sightline Daily:
    This is a great introduction to the evils of US parking policy, and much more approachable than Don Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking.  Think of it as a Cliff’s Notes for the above tome.
  • A series of posts on “Walk Appeal” by Steve Mouzon:
    How far people are willing to joyfully walk each day varies wildly, depending on what they’re walking through.  An exploration of how walkability varies with land use patterns.
  • Utilities for Dummies by Dave Roberts:
    Covers a lot of the same kind of stuff as Peter Fox-Penner’s book Smart Power, but in a much shorter, more readable way.  Dave Roberts is also much more skeptical about the functionality of our current regulatory regime, more interested in transforming the centralized nature of our utilities, and moving to a renewable grid much more quickly.
  • Carbon Zero, by Alex Steffen:
    A long polemic on why good human scale cities are the best platform on which to build a livable, sustainable civilization.  Good ideas… could do with more footnotes. (also available as an eBook if you want to support Steffen’s work)
  • Mike Elliason at Brute Force Collaborative on Baugruppen:
    Baugruppen are essentially urban co-housing developments, designed and financed by like-minded individuals.  They end up being more democratic, more interesting, more energy efficient, higher quality, and cheaper than speculative developments.  They’re so good that some cities are giving them preferential development rights.

    1. A New Approach to Affordable Urban Living
    2. Ready. Set. BUILD! (Collaboratively)
    3. Proactive Jurisdictions
    4. To Form a More Affordable Urbanism
    5. Innovative Constructs
    6. Sizes Vary by Manufacturer
    7. Instant Community — Just Add Water
    8. Yes in our backyard!
  • Cars and Climate: Another City is Possible:
    This is my own take on the fundamental conflict between sustainable, livable cities and widespread use of automobiles in an urban context.
  • Discount Rates, a boring thing you should know about:
    Another great overview from Dave Roberts at Grist, looking at how the time-value of money totally screws up any and all long term decision making, especially in the context of climate.
    A nationwide network of blogs that focuses on livable streets issues.  Tons of great content.
  • Strong Towns:
    A conservative approach to livable streets advocacy, focusing on the crappy return on investment that sprawling suburban America represents, and the overwhelming operations and maintenance overhang that we face as a nation.

Online Tools:

  • WalkScore:
    A tool that overlays on Google Maps all kinds of interesting metrics related to livability and automobile independent accessibility.
  • StreetMix:
    An easy to use street cross-section tool, that lets you take a given right-of-way, and  visualize it in a lot of different development scenarios.
  • HUD/USDOT Location Affordability Index:
    A collaboration between HUD, the US DOT, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, that allows you to explore the total cost of living in a location, including both housing and transportation expenses.

Lectures and Talks:


  • Into Eternity, by Michael Madsen:
    A meditation on the deep time commitments that we are making on behalf of future generations.  The film is focused on long term nuclear waste storage, but the ethical undercurrents could just as well be applied to climate change.
  • Manufactured Landscapes, about Edward Burtynsky
    Burtynsky takes large format photographs of landscapes.  Profoundly altered landscapes.  This film
  • The Human Scale, about Jan Gehl by Andreas Dalsgaard:
    A film exploring the same issues of urban design as Gehl’s book Cities for People, mentioned above.  It’s much more focused on transforming existing cities and mega-cities, rather than taking North American style suburban towns and building them up to the point of being good cities, but that’s okay.  Still lots of good information, and footage of great human cities.
  • Passive Passion:
    A short film about the German Passivhaus extreme building energy efficiency standard.
  • Wake Up, Freak Out:
    A 12 minute animated film that does a good job of getting across the problem of positive climate change feedback loops (ice-albedo, wildfires, permafrost methane release, etc).
  • Streetfilms:
    A phenomenal archive of short films about livable streets and cities built for people, with footage from all over the world.  Highly recommended.


Model Towns:

These cities are somewhat comparable to Boulder, Colorado (and many other university towns in the US), in terms of population and industrial composition… but they are denser and much more livable than most similarly sized cities in the US.

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