The Language of Towns & Cities

I’m very pleased to say The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary has been published and is available for purchase. The massive tome was written by Dhiru Thadani with more than fifty contributors. I was the editor of the book as well as a contributor.

My leading observation is that the title is a misnomer. It’s not a visual dictionary, it’s a visual encyclopedia — a combination of reference book and coffee table book. It represents about 15 years of creative production by Dhiru, including his maps of urban spaces around the world and his insights from 30 years as an architect and town planner. Numbers also tell the tale: the book consists of 804 pages; more than 500 subject matter entries ranging from single paragraphs to full essays; and more than 2,500 diagrams, illustrations, and photographs.

The book is physically heavy and bulky. Its dimensions are 10.4″ x 10.4″ x 2.75″ and it weighs 9 pounds… not what you would call a portable book. Once it gets parked on a desk or coffee table, it’s not going to move far.

The Language of Towns & Cities is a fine example of the craft of bookmaking. Credit is due to Rizzoli Publications and the Chinese firm that manufactured the book. It is beautifully printed, with heavy coated paper stock that showcases the vibrant, lush photography. The binding is sturdy and lies flat at any page, which many books these days are not made to do.

The authorial tone of the book is accessible and straightforward, aiming for clarity rather than obfuscation by jargon. Indeed, The Language of Towns & Cities is a work of anti-jargon, because it introduces concepts, defines terms, explores patterns, and reveals history.

Being an encyclopedia, The Language of Towns & Cities is arranged alphabetically. Rob Krier’s review on describes his childhood joy at browsing reference works. Krier says that reading Language made him feel the same way. Each flip of the page brought a different subject into view, encouraging serendipitous exploration and discovery.

To sum up, Language combines beautiful images, a wide variety of subject matter, accessible writing, and fine bookmaking. I call it the ultimate browsing book on urban design.

What follows is the dust jacket book description, list of contributors, and a sample from the book including the complete table of contents.

Dust jacket text

This is the descriptive text I wrote for the dust jacket, based on Dhiru’s input:

Unique in format and expansive in scope, The Language of Towns and Cities surveys the world of urban design and planning with deep admiration and meticulousness. Architect and town planner Dhiru A. Thadani, and more than fifty expert contributors, brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this blend of encyclopedia, illustrated design manual, and stunning photoessay collection.

More than ever before, the quality of urban places is of critical importance to the world’s population. Over half of humanity resides in urban areas, and growth is continually increasing. Poor urban design and planning is bringing about many negative impacts, from inequitable slum conditions to social isolation to the crushing burden of excessive roadways and traffic. This book empowers citizens with the knowledge of city planning and urban design to demand a more humane built environment for all.

Unlike the medical and legal professions, architecture and planning do not possess a common language to discuss urbanism. Words have been and continue to be misused to communicate ideas, elements, and visions of cities. The Language of Towns and Cities addresses this by visually defining terms and ideas related to the built environment, illustrating their use, application, and best practices.

The book is organized alphabetically, with each word, name, or concept described in text and images. Key personalities in the history and evolution of urban place-making are introduced in concise biographical portraits. Plans and profiles of the greatest examples of town and city design span the full sweep of history, from antiquity to the present day.

With over 500 definitions, articles, case studies, biographies, and essays, plus thousands of exceptionally informative diagrams and sumptuous photographs, the book is a visual feast for all urbanists, from novice to expert.


Laurence Aurbach
Elinor Bacon
Scott Berg
Stephanie Bothwell
Daniel Braun
Jason Brody
Javier Cenicacelaya
Rick Chellman
Thomas Comitta
Robert Davis
Diane Dorney
Andrés Duany
Douglas Farr
Doug Firstenberg
Norman Garrick
Robert J. Gibbs
Ray Gindroz
David R. Godschalk
Rick Hall
Peter J. Hetzel
Thomas S. Hines
Jennifer Hurley
Steven Hurtt
J. L. Sibley Jennings, Jr.
Jay Kabriel
Doug Kelbaugh
Léon Krier
James Howard Kunstler
Christopher Leinberger
Alex MacLean
Max Mackenzie
Joyce Marin
John Massengale
David Mayernick
Michael Mehaffy
Timothy Mennel
John O. Norquist
Cheryl O’Neil
Daniel Parolek
Karen Parolek
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
Scott Polikov
Stefanos Polyzoides
Terry Schum
Daniel K. Slone
Lee Sobel
Sandy Sorlien
Ken Stapleton
Robert A.M. Stern
Emily Talen
Adrienne Thadani
Laurie Volk
Caroll William Westfall
Todd Zimmerman


Book sample

Front pages from The Language of Towns & Cities in PDF format, including table of contents, brief statement of book concept, acknowledgments, and complete list of subject matter entries.

Download PDF

Additional Resources

Dhiru Thadani’s home page

Dhiru Thadani’s author page on

Publication announcement on

Rizzoli Publications: The Language of Towns & Cities

Book Reviews and News

In chronological order:

Brown, Ben, Dhiru’s Encyclopedia of City-Shaping: Reassurance in Uncertain Times, Placeshakers, December 3, 2010.

Bartman, Dan, The Language of Towns and Cities,, December 8, 2010.

Weinstein, Norman, How New Urbanism’s Case Triumphs Best Through “The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary” by Dhiru A. Thadani,, January 14, 2011.

Langdon, Philip, Dhiru Thadani’s astonishing ‘encyclodictionary,’ New Urban News, January/February 2011.

National Endowment for the Humanities, Visualizing the New Urbanism, January 25, 2010.

Hill, John, Book Review: The Language of Towns & Cities, A Daily Dose of Architecture, February 23, 2011.

Gruber, Frank, Talking Urban: A Review of The Language of Towns and Cities by Dhiru A. Thadani, Huffington Post, March 4, 2011.

Osth, Eric R., A Challenge to Today’s Urbanists, Traditional Building, April 2011.

Hunter, Stacy, The Language of Towns and Cities, Icon, Issue 096, June 2011.

The Language of Towns & Cities wins the Gerd Albers Award 2011 from the International Society of City and Regional Planners, October 26, 2011.

McLaren, Brian, CRITIQUE: Professionals Share Perceptions of Publications, Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Columns, Winter 2011, p. 30. Also digitally published at

Urban Design Podcast, Episode 198: The Language of Towns and Cities November 30, 2011. Interview of author Dhiru Thadani by Arina Habich.

Brussat, David, An Encyclopedia of Cities and Towns, Architecture Here and There Blog, Providence Journal, December 8, 2011.

6 responses to “The Language of Towns & Cities

  1. Pingback: Dhiru’s Encyclopedia of City-Shaping: Reassurance in Uncertain Times |

  2. Tong

    Learnt a lot from this blog :)

    Reading about Functional Classificaiotn Replacement just now.

    Have you written some book reviews of A Pattern Language? That must be insightful and useful.


  3. Dawie Coetzee

    I’ve just discovered your blog. I support the vast bulk of your position, and shall certainly follow Ped Shed in future.

    As an enthusiast of both walkable cities and automobiles I take the rather radical position that the future of the automobile as something to enthuse about depends on a drastic reduction in vehicular traffic, indeed to the point where it ceases to be at all important. Only then might the automobile be freed from the collusion of the corporations and the State, and emerge as tinkered into existence by a tiny contingent of enthusiast-artisans. More on my blog:

    Two things are lacking from most of the discourse on urban design: firstly the relationship of urban and agricultural land uses, and the effect thereon of the type of agricultural practice which predominates; and secondly the relationship of urban form and economic model. I favour a localist/distributist/mutualist model that is best supported by a fine-grained, walkable urban form precisely because it involves a reduction in the required mobility radius.

    That said I’ve hardly begun to explore your archives.

    Alas, “A Language of Towns and Cities” is a bit pricy on the local book websites. I shall have to see what my fortunes do …

  4. Laurence Aurbach Post author

    @Dawie: Perhaps you could request that your local library acquire a copy. I think it would qualify as a reference book.

    On the relationship of urban and agricultural land uses, take a look at TNDs With Agriculture. Also, a search for “Agricultural Urbanism” or “Agrarian Urbanism” will turn up many sources, such as this lecture by Andres Duany. I’m sure there is more to be discovered on this topic, particularly about feedback effects at the regional scale.

    On economic systems, I think urban design practitioners tend to focus on actions where they can have relatively immediate impacts, such as business incubators, incentives for local ownership of business, zoning codes with more focus on walkable patterns and fewer land-use restrictions, and so on.

  5. Dawie Coetzee

    Thanks for the links, Laurence. I’ll comment on the TNDs with Agriculture soon.

    Of course one’s preference as regards an economic model does inform one’s preference in urban quality. It gives clarity about where one would like to go, even if one cannot get there in a single step.

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