The learned Rybczynski strikes again, this time with an engrossing social history of town planning in America. Trained as an architect, Rybczynski (Waiting for the Weekend, 1991, etc.) has a fondness for ferreting out the small details in how we build things: houses, cities, social constructs of all kinds. He wittily examines how our cities have become what they are, likening America's urban centers to ""cheek-by-jowl assortments of different sets for different productions--the dusty back alleys of High Noon next to the tree-lined smalltown streets of It's A Wonderful Life beside the drive-in highway strip of American Graffiti around the corner from the metropolitan nightmare of Blade Runner."" In these varied urban visions, in all of which appearances overwhelm reality, Rybczynski isolates what makes American cities different from their counterparts in Europe and farther afield: In America, tree-shaded avenues, regular grids, and spread-out plats all bespeak a desire for privacy, space, and ""an unconscious move away from the man-made and toward the natural."" These observations are apparent, of course, but Rybczynski's great strength as a writer has long been to point out the obvious in fresh, even surprising ways. More innovative is his vision of the future of America's cities, where Outer Hell bleeds into Bedford Falls to form an amalgam of sprawling places like San Diego, Jacksonville, and Dallas, places whose ""chaotic, ideological impurity may be a more truthful accommodation to the way we live today."" And throughout the book are sprinkled real gems, such as the author's sidelong glance at the history of service alleys in America, whose origin he finds in Savannah, Ga., and his account of the use of ""green space"" in what could otherwise have been arid downtowns in places like Chicago and Seattle. Fine bedside reading for students of cities and futurists everywhere.