Marshall was born in Norfolk, Virginia to John Francis Marshall, Jr. and Eleanor Jackson Marshall. Marshall's great-grandfather, Albert H. Grandy, founded The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk in 1898, and was its first publisher and editor-in-chief.
Marshall attended Woodberry Forest School in the graduating class of 1978. He received a dual Bachelor of Science degree in political economy and Spanish from Carnegie Mellon University in 1983 and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1988. Marshall studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design during the 1999-2000 academic year as a Loeb fellow.
Marshall lives with his wife Kristi Barlow in Brooklyn, New York where the couple were noted for their (ultimately unsuccessful) effort between 2008 and 2010 to organize a cohousing community in Brooklyn.
From 1988 to 1997, Marshall worked as a staff writer and columnist for the Virginian-Pilot, where he came to focus on State and local politics and urban development. In 1998 and '99, Marshall wrote a bi-weekly opinion column as a correspondent for the Virginian-Pilot.
Marshall left the paper in 1999 for a Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He moved to New York City shortly thereafter, where he continued his free lance journalism.
In his 2012 book The Surprising Design of Market Economies (Texas 2012)and related opinion pieces in The New York Times, Bloomberg View and other publications, Marshall asserts that government constructs markets in an economic sense. He says the "Free Market" is a false concept that impedes a more active discussion about what kind of markets government builds, which he says in a democracy should be part of regular public discussion. His book takes readers through the construction of property, corporations, patents and physical infrastructure, all of which Marshall views as the foundations for markets.
The book and its ideas aroused opposition from those who view markets as existing outside government. On Sept 14, 2012, Nick Sorrentino, in his blog AgainstCronyCapitalism.org, described Marshall's ideas in a Bloomberg View essay the previous day as "nonsense."
"Markets are as natural as a dawn in the desert," said Sorrentino. "And like all of these things they do not need government to exist."
Marshall's ideas have received support from other quarters. Challenge Magazine, a journal edited by Jeffrey Madrick and whose editorial board includes Paul Krugman and Robert Solow, had an article by Marshall summarizing the book's ideas in its March/April 2014 issue.
In the 1990s, Marshall became involved in controversy over his criticism of New Urbanism, a school of suburban design he called a marketing scheme to repackage conventional suburban sprawl behind nostalgic imagery and aspirational sloganism.
In a 1996 article in Metropolis Magazine, Marshall denounced New Urbanism as "a grand fraud". Marshall continued the theme in numerous articles, including an opinion column in the Washington Post in September of the same year, and in Marshall's first book, How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken (Austin: U. of Texas Press 2000).
Andrés Duany, the architect whose Duany Plater Zyberk & Company is among the leading promoters of New Urbanism, and some of whose projects had come under Marshall's strongest criticism, dismissed Marshall's criticisms in an interview for the Daily Princetonian, saying that Marshall, ". . . cannot stand the fact that we're working with the middle class. He wants us to spend all our time with the poor."
New-Urbanism advocate James Howard Kunstler gave Marshall negative reviews of How Cities Work, in Metropolis Magazine. Kunstler wrote,
As an analysis of the urban condition, the rest of How Cities Work is a patchwork of non sequiturs, platitudes, and tautologies. Its general theory is a one-dimensional preoccupation with transportation. As a discussion of particular places — Portland, Silicon Valley, Jackson Heights — it doesn't get beyond the self-evident. Along the way it takes cheap shots at the few figures on the contemporary scene who have tried to do something to alleviate the fiasco of the human habitat in our time.
... I simply cannot find a consistent or coherent point of view in Marshall¹s long essay on the question, or at the very least an explanation of how cities work.
What's missing is a recognition that the way cities have worked in America for the last half of the twentieth century was a gross aberration from the norms of human ecology that any civilization with a desire to endure would do well to avert.
Architectural Record called How Cities Work an "important new work," saying
In many ways, this book is the 21st-century analogue to one of the most important planning books of the past century, Benton MacKaye's 1928 landmark, The New Exploration. Like MacKaye's book, which shaped the thinking of generations of regional planners in the 20th century, How Cities Work could become a touchstone for coming generations interested in comprehending and redirecting metropolitan growth.The Surprising Design of Market Economies (University of Texas Press, 2012), ISBN 978-0-292-71777-0
Beneath The Metropolis: the Secret Lives of Cities (Carroll and Graf, 2006), ISBN 978-0-786-71864-1
How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl and The Roads Not Taken (University of Texas Press, 2001), ISBN 978-0-292-75240-5