Telling the stories of urban life, one book at a time

When Michael Nutter became mayor of Philadelphia in 2008, he came into office with an ambitious to-do list. But the Great Recession had just hit, forcing his ideas to take a temporary backseat.

Unexpectedly, “he was scrambling to stay above water, but that didn’t stop the mission. It didn’t stop the leadership,” says Susan Wachter, co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR) and a Wharton professor of real estate and finance. “It wasn’t reactionary, but a thoughtful response coming from deep thinking that’s been informed by many years in public service.”

Now, Nutter, a fellow at Penn IUR and an executive fellow at the School of Social Policy & Practice, has put this experience—and many others from his eight-year tenure leading Philadelphia—into a new book called “Mayor: The Best Job in Politics,” which he will discuss with Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett on Tuesday, Feb. 27, at Perry World House.

The volume is part of Penn Press’ “City in the Twenty-First Century” series overseen by Wachter and Eugenie Birch, Penn IUR co-director and a professor of urban research and education in the School of Design. The series currently has a list of more than three-dozen books aimed at showcasing a breadth of experiences about the urban condition.

“We want voices that are coming from all perspectives that make a difference in moving the urban dialogue forward,” Wachter says. “This book series is one way that we get impactful work that affects decision-making.”

For the series, Birch and Wachter seek out three types of manuscripts: Those by seasoned academics doing ground-breaking research; those by young researchers whose work represents new scholarship; and those by people like Nutter, whose professional successes—and even some failures—have greatly impacted urban life.

“We wanted to keep the series fairly broad, modern, and we wanted to be distinct,” Birch says. “We try to be topical, obviously, capturing the important subjects that other people aren’t doing in urban reporting. And we always have our eyes out for really good people and manuscripts. We want to make sure this series is read and that people think it’s important.”

To that end, Wachter and Birch have edited a book about rebuilding following a disaster and another about sustainability in cities. Later in 2018, Birch says they expect to publish one about the legacy of planning history, another about rapid urbanization in India, and a third about activism and environmental policy in Washington.

The researchers don’t foresee a shortage of topics anytime soon, especially as more people in the United States move into cities. Right now, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas.

“As we’re heading up to 70, 80 percent in cities worldwide, the global crises and challenges will increasingly be urban,” Wachter says. “That’s what’s so fascinating about this. The issues will not end, and we will take them on as we see them.”