As with Lefebvre's "Production of Space," "Writings on Cities" is broken down into digestible sections, but is still a fairly dense and complicated read. This work provides a translation of Lefebvre's "Right to the City," a seminal work in urban studies literature and the foundation of a lot of more recent work on the subject. It also contains a selection from "Space and Politics", two interviews with Lefebvre that shed some light on his personal life and clarification of his views, and two chapters on rhythmanalysis that are interesting and worth reading, but (in my opinion) not as thought-provoking as "Right to the City," given that their subject matter is more descriptive and is subsumed in the essential theoretical development of Lefebvre's "Right to the City."
The introduction by Kofman and Lebas provides a useful overview of Lefebvre's life and philosophy, and I found the introduction useful in situating Lefebvre's work, having previously read some articles as well as "Production of Space" without being familiar with Lefebvre's life. Lefebvre is one of the seminal thinkers on the right to the city, a theme that was taken up in the Anglo-American world by the likes of geographer David Harvey ("Social Justice and the City" is a very good read), Neil Brenner, and Don Mitchell, among others. I am not very familiar with the background of either Kofman or Lebas, and I do not know who copy edited this book, but there were quite a few spelling errors that I found a bit distracting.
Lefebvre's work develops based on the idea of the city as the inscription of specific times and "simultaneities" (e.g. interactions between people, modes of production, trade, religious and political power) in physical reality, giving rise to specific urban morphology. Lefebvre conceptualizes the history of cities up to the critical period of capitalist industrialization, which drove (drives) rapid urbanization in industrial countries, followed by urbanization in more distant non-industrial societies where industrial production undercuts agrarian livelihoods and leads to the development of shanty-towns on urban peripheries. His theoretical argument traces the abandonment of the old urban cores for suburbs as new industries develop on the edges of cities, followed by the re-appropriation of the urban cores by commercial interests.
Unlike other urban histories that deal primarily with urban form and population dynamics, however, Lefebvre focuses on the philosophy, strategy, and ideology of industrial urbanization, the ideology of "habitat" and the "right to nature" associated with suburbanization, and the city as a center of power, albeit in reality a cog in the organizing machine of state or global planning. Usefully, he separates and develops three concepts that are often conflated in thought and practice: (1) the city as a morphological entity, in and through which organizing and planning power is exercised and applied; (2) the urban as the social space of interactions and relations between people, relations of difference, discourse, and (potentially) increasing understanding; and (3) the urban fabric as the networks and relationships stretching from the city into surrounding areas, characterized by the subtle domination of countryside by the city. The basic argument, reminiscent of Marx and yet more specifically urban and updated, is that industrial urbanization has generated urban society, which provides the setting in which people ("the people" or "the workers", the majority), through their increased interactions and the combination of knowledge with lived practice of interaction, have the potential to reclaim the city as a space of both production and interaction, public space, play, etc.
There is a lot to this book - it is somewhat dense, but as a researcher it provided me with numerous ideas and concepts that have proven useful in my research and writing, not only about cities, but also about political economy and economics. Lefebvre develops quite a few philosophical starting points for deeper analysis and thinking about our society today, about the relationship between the city and the suburb, about the ideology of habitat, the commodification of nature and escape, and public transportation, among other topics.
The bottom line: If you want a book that makes you think more theoretically or philosophically about the city and urban society, and about the relationship between power, urbanization, and political economy in the world today, I recommend this book. In order to really grasp where Lefebvre was going, I had to summarize each chapter in a couple sentences as I went, which really helped to put it all together (otherwise he appears to jump around). If you are not up for active, engaged reading of what is basically philosophy rather than history, then I recommend David Harvey or Neil Brenner as alternatives. I also found Don Mitchell's work of a more practical/tangible nature than Lefebvre's.