Influential blogger and advocate Kaid Benfield’s new book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, argues that sustainable places are really just places people love. Think of those places where you most feel like yourself. Would you want anything to happen to them? We feel that way about certain places because they are “people habitats,” designed not for cars but for the every-day person walking or biking. They create an irreplaceable sense of community and are healthy for both people and the environment. Benfield points to many people habitats in the U.S. and abroad. As an example, New Orleans is highlighted because it’s rich in culture, design, and, perhaps most importantly, community.
Unfortunately, Benfield writes, too much of our country has been taken over by throw-away housing and nowhere “town centers” in sprawled-out developments. These are habitats designed for cars. In so many of these places, there’s no there there. Even “smart growth” developments are too often lackluster, he argues. While they may be better than sprawl — with their emphasis on dense, walkable, transit-oriented development — they too often lack green space and any unique character that makes a place lovable.
At his book launch party, Benfield said he’s increasingly seeing the world through the eyes of a designer, and that’s apparent in many of these essays. He speaks to the power of design to create places that matter, particularly the ability of landscape architects to harness green infrastructure to make places more livable and design public spaces central to communities’ identity. The essay, “Cities Need Nature,” which explains why green infrastructure offers so many social and ecological benefits, is worth the price of the book alone. Here, Benfield shows he is no dogmatic New Urbanist; he really understands the value of design and nature.
Benfield also shows up how green-washing has been applied to sell communities as green when they are actually “brown.” He takes aim at the U.S. Green Building Council, and its certification of green buildings and even whole new developments only accessible via car. Debunking the marketing of one such “green” development out in the middle of nowhere, he asks, “how can you be ‘net-zero’ if you have to drive long distances to anything?” For Benfield, the greenest places are the older, revitalized ones, adding a new layer upon existing historic assets. He just worries that revitalization can have unintended consequences, namely gentrification. Benfield has spoken elsewhere about how equitable revitalization can happen.
Like public health experts Drs. Richard Jackson and Howard Frumkin, Benfield sees the deep connections between health and the built environment. He delves into both the negative health impacts of sprawl and the positive health impacts of dense yet nature-laden communities. In sprawled-out places without sidewalks, it’s no wonder people don’t walk, as it’s very dangerous. He uses data on pedestrian fatalities to show this. But he also includes new studies showing the positive side of the ledger: how walking, biking, and access to nature provides a range of mental and physical health benefits. He also gets a bit “woo-woo,” as he says, about describing the many spiritual benefits of beautiful places, explaining how living in a great place increases happiness.
So what makes a sustainable, livable community? Benfield explores the many tangibles and intangibles, arguing that creating these places is as much an art as a science. It’s not just about nature and design. While he offers evocative examples and the best available data, some clever but apt “tests” really help make his points. He asks: “Can a child comfortably walk to buy a popsicle and walk back home? Does the neighborhood attract kids walking door-to-door on Halloween? Can you meet most of your daily needs within a 20 minute walk or transit ride?” For one friend, the test is “is this place good enough that people want to vacation there?” And then there’s another interesting one: “how many drinking establishments are within walking distance?” Neighborhood bars and pubs, Benfield writes, are key “third places,” which aren’t work or home, but help create community. Sustainable, livable communities have so many layers.
Unlike other environmentalists, Benfield sees cities, and, really, the greater metropolitan regions in which cities sit, as a huge piece of the answer. Cities were once viewed as a place to escape from. Suburbs were the answer to oppressive social and environmental conditions. Today, mayors and planners increasingly understand that if we want people to live in denser, more sustainable communities, these places must be well-designed, lush with greenery, and trick-o-treater-friendly. Furthermore, metropolitan areas may provide the ideal people habitat, but they also concentrate development so our vital natural resources can be conserved. Making these places loveable is really central to a more sustainable future.