What University Presses Have Done for Urban Design

Anna Clark
Next City
July 27, 2015

The University of Chicago Press is the largest of its kind in the U.S. (Photo by Tom Rossiter/University of Chicago)

Think of universities as a series of ivory tower silos? Think again. Not only can urban-set institutions of higher learning be vital anchor institutions in their neighborhoods, university presses throughout the U.S. play a pivotal role in publishing game-changing work about cities. Those books, both practical and philosophical, result in real benefits to our built environments.

There are more than 130 members of the Association of American University Presses, each grounded in a particular regional landscape and with a mission to serve the public good. Thanks to Cold War-era funding for higher education, they flourished in the 1960s and 1970s; more than 10 presses were founded between 1970 and 1974. The timing coincided with a national reckoning with cities, especially in terms of inclusion, equality, preservation, violence and schools.

No wonder, then, that university presses have shouldered the urbanism genre. It’s not just because universities employ many of the tenure-seeking academics penning these books; it’s because risk-averse mainstream publishers aren’t convinced that this work is worthwhile.

UPs are able to be more agile. Hardly isolated from market forces, they are nonetheless able to make editorial decisions that are based on more than sales numbers. Nonfiction of depth, like Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton), can be released with the intention of reaching a smaller but influential audience, thanks to cross-disciplinary interest, improving distribution models, libraries, reviewers, classroom syllabi and increasingly stylish book design. Most of them act on a slow burn, becoming the foundation for the journalism or intellectual investigation of others. The fat footnotes in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, for example, is riddled with nods to earlier work published by university presses. And then there is the occasional breakout book, like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard), that makes heads swivel.

This is so despite the popular impression that UPs publish weighty tomes that are as useless as they are self-important. Books that fit that profile should not obscure the quality ones that never would have come to the fore if trade publishers were the only ones in the business. Many UPs have a storied history of amplifying voices that were long ignored. The University of Arizona Press, for example, debuted more than 50 years ago by publishing A Pima Remembers by George Webb. It’s an autobiographical account of Webb’s coming of age in the Pima Indian community at the turn of the century. More than simply indulging his nostalgia, Webb emphasizes how Pima farms were destroyed by white communities that controlled the water — a history that has alarming relevance in today’s drought-starved West Coast and in cities like Detroit and Toledo that have struggled toprovide drinking water to poor citizens. The University of Arizona Press has continued its legacy of publishing indigenous authors on a number of key subjects, like land use. It has also published intriguing works on theurbanization of the West, the character of Mexican border cities, and thestruggle for urban sustainability in the cities of the Great Basin.

Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota Press is a leader in fusing global urbanism with social history and culture. It was one of the first presses to publish virtually all titles in paperback in order to increase access to scholarship. Good thing, too, because this publisher is putting out intriguing work with real relevance to our cities. That includes examinations of how women impacted public space in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, howuniversities interact with their urban contexts, and how the 20th century’s most influential theories of urban development stand against 21st-century cities.

And there is also the University of California Press bringing to light thoughtful books by Rebecca Solnit on San Francisco and New OrleansSamir Kassir on Beirut David L. Ulin on Los Angeles Jordan Sand on Tokyoand Laura Lawson on a century of community gardening in America. And also the University of Chicago Press, the largest of its kind in the United States, which can boast of Eric Klinenberg’s book on the disastrous 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed hundreds, and Andrew Highsmith’s new bookon the limits of “demolition as progress” in Flint, Michigan.

The litany is endless, underscoring the audacity of university presses in believing that every city deserves the best ideas possible. We need that. As we make choices about our modern cities, as policymakers, advocates or citizens, we need these books to ground our vision, to help us imagine what is possible.

And that’s why the tenuous future of university presses is so alarming. The mid-century boom in UPs is long over. Some presses enjoy large surpluses, like those at Oxford and Cambridge universities, which are buoyed by sidelines in English-language training and exams. A handful of others, like the Harvard and Yale presses, have substantial endowments. But most are operating on a shoestring, struggling to manage both the radical transformation of the book industry along with disinvestment in higher education. We’ve seen, in recent years, the attempted phasing out of the University of Missouri Press, while UPs at Susquehanna, Rice and Southern Methodist universities, along with the University of Scranton, all suspended their operations. Other presses are pooling resources with their former competitors in order to “do more with less.” The National Endowment for the Humanities subsidized more than 1,050 UP books between 1977 and 1995 as part of its rigorous Publication Subvention Program, but that program ended in 1996, after the NEH’s budget was cut by 37 percent.

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