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American Urban Form

A Representative History

By Sam Bass Warner and Andrew Whittemore

Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2012

American Urban Form—the spaces, places, and boundaries that define city life—has been evolving since the first settlements of colonial days. The changing patterns of houses, buildings, streets, parks, pipes and wires, wharves, railroads, highways, and airports reflect changing patterns of the social, political, and economic processes that shape the city. In this book, Sam Bass Warner and Andrew Whittemore map more than three hundred years of the American city through the evolution of urban form. They do this by offering an illustrated history of “the City”—a hypothetical city (constructed from the histories of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York) that exemplifies the American city’s transformation from village to regional metropolis.

In an engaging text accompanied by Whittemore’s detailed, meticulous drawings, they chart the City’s changes. Planning for the future of cities, they remind us, requires an understanding of the forces that shaped the city’s past.

Sam Bass Warner (d. 2023) was a noted urban historian and Visiting Professor of Urban History at MIT. His many other books include Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870–1900 (Harvard University Press, 1962, rev. 1978) and The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City (Harper & Row, 1962; rev. ed. University of California Press, 1995.

Andrew Whittemore is an assistant professor at Depaartment of City and Regional Planning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Illuminating … a richly visual, extraordinarily conceptual view of urbanization in the U.S.” Choice

American Urban Form stands out as a concise narration of the various dynamics that shaped the physical form of the American metropolis. … Highly engaging in its technical descriptions, which are supported by excellent hand drawings by Whittemore.”—Garyfalia Palaiologou, The Journal of Space Syntax

“With its rich narrative and outstanding visual representation of urban form changes, this concise book succeeds in making the reader experience the American city through time and understand the forces behind its evolution. The hypothetical city becomes real through engaging and detailed accounts of events, spaces, and social interactions.” —Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Professor of Urban Planning, UCLA

American Urban Form—assaying Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—merits acclaim. Imagining our urban past, present, and future, Sam Bass Warner and Andrew Whittemore frame their lively narrative with twenty-first century sensibilities as they plumb the near and more distant past. Assembling chronologically organized big-picture views, the co-authors explain the shaping forces which created assorted urban forms. This superb book, to its credit, features Whittemore’s hand-crafted and sumptuously detailed urban landscapes, best thought of as a luminous historical exhibition. A wide range of readers—architects, artists, planners, historians, journalists, lawyers, mayors, legislators, policy makers, and general readers—surely will learn much from this book.” —Michael H. Ebner, Lake Forest College

“This book represents a fresh approach to a perennial problem—arguably the perennial problem—in urban history. It will surely be, as the authors intend, a very useful and enlightening book for planners and design professionals seeking to learn from a single volume the most important elements of American urban history. The range of detailed, accurate, and insightful knowledge the authors display from the colonial city to the present is simply astonishing. And I believe the book will generate much useful comment and debate among urban historians about how to conceptualize and to present our field.” —Robert L. Fishman, Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning, Taubman College, University of Michigan

American Urban Form
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MIT Press, 2012

CHOICE magazine Outstanding Academic Title for 2012