“Just as all parts of an ecosystem must be healthy if the system is going to work,” an environment for people — a “people habitat” — must have “homes, shops, businesses, and an environment that fit in a harmonious way,” said urban thinker and author F. Kaid Benfield at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. For the past 50 years, “we have not been living in harmony with our environment.” To undo the damage, Benfield proposes a wiser approach, set out in his new book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities. He covered a few ways to achieve these healthy environments in his talk:
Focus on Regions and Neighborhoods, Not Cities: Regions, Benfield argues, actually define the way we live today. Cities extend far beyond their jurisdictional boundaries. For example, “the functional region of Atlanta is 12 times the size of the city of Atlanta.” Only city governments and cartographers care about boundaries. “The environment, commerce, transportation, and people all cross borders.”
Neighborhoods, at the other end of the spectrum, are the center of people habitats and the agents of change on the ground, as they are where people spend much of their time.
Create Walkable Places: “Americans don’t walk much, and I don’t blame them.” Among a list of 20 plus developed countries, America ranks dead last in the amount they walk. Just 26 percent of Americans want often or sometimes. In 1969, Benfield says 48 percent of children walked to school; in 2009, it’s just 13 percent. There’s are many reasons for this, but the built environment is a major culprit.
Think of all those cul-de-sac neighborhoods designed for cars, or strip malls without sidewalks or crosswalks. There, people take their own lives into their hands going out for a walk. Why don’t kids walk anymore? It’s because so many suburban schools are now “bigger than Disneyland,” isolated and disconnected. Showing photos of the typical suburban school, Benfield wondered if it was a school, mall, or prison.
The death of walking has had negative ripple effects as well: It’s no surprise that places where you cannot walk face an epidemic of obesity. “Weight-related diseases are connected to a lack of walkable environments.” Today, many states’ obesity rates top 30 percent.
Integrate Nature into Cities: Benfield believes in the power of urban parks, particularly small neighborhood parks, to improve the health of a community. As an example, he pointed to Russell Square park in London (see image above), which is “big enough so you known you are in nature, but small enough so you know you are in a city.” He strongly believes that “bringing the function and beauty of nature into a neighborhood” has many positive benefits, including a boost in our health and well-being. “When we are immersed in nature, our blood pressure goes down and our mental acuity increases.”
Consider the Whole System of Energy Use and Emissions: “What is called green development in many places really isn’t green.” When examining the sustainability of a residential development, for example, we need to look at that development’s energy use and carbon expenditures vs. the amount of energy used and carbon expended by transportation getting to and from that place.
Using Prairie Ridge, a “net-zero development” outside Chicago, Benfield showed how the use of the term “net-zero” there is a misnomer because the community failed to consider the whole system of energy use and carbon emissions. While the development may produce as much energy as it consumes, its residents are expending huge amounts of energy and creating a lot of pollution getting there. This is because Prairie Ridge’s Walk score is literally zero. “It’s next to a corn field.” Residents of Prairie Ridge expend four times the amount of carbon as those in downtown Chicago.
For city after city, Benfield showed how different the carbon profile of people can be depending on where they live. “If you are living on the fringe of a city, you are driving longer distances.” In contrast, people living downtown are putting far less carbon into the atmosphere getting around.
Preserve the “Continuity of Places”: “If a place has a sense of continuity, it has a calming, reassuring effect.” In contrast, a place without it can be jarring, “disorientating.” Places treated with respect are the result of a slow accrual of layers, carefully thought out so they fit into a harmonious whole. These kinds of places spur “cultural engagement,” they invite us to “use our imaginations.” And they are the places with the most “civic vitality.” They are mixed-use and feature building of different sizes and ages.
On a related theme, Benfield argued that preserving the continuity of old buildings is also important: “the greenest building is the one already built.” Even replacing an inefficient older building filled with embedded energy with a new “green building” means starting at zero with carbon emissions. “It will take years for the new building to make up for the carbon emissions.” Benfield argued that “we have forgotten about the energy efficiency of thick old walls, solar orientation, windows, air, the basic principles. Now, it’s about gizmo green.”
Take Advantage of the Future Trends Here Now: “The future will be different from the past.” To be successful, communities need to take advantage of some emerging trends. First, cities are sprawling less today. “Greenfield development peaked in the 90s.” Second, Millennials prefer to live in the core of cities twice as much as other generations. Some 2/3 want walkable places, even in suburbs. “They value density, connectivity, and convenient access to jobs.” Third, people are driving less. The vehicle miles traveled per person per year has been falling since 2005 and staying down. Today, 46 percent of 18-year-olds don’t have a driver’s license. The miles driven by 16-34-year-olds has also fallen 40 percent in the past decade. Lastly, among all generations, bicycle use is up 24 percent and walking 16 percent.
Invest in Lovable Places: “People will take care of places they love, which makes them sustainable” (read more on this). Lovable places can be complex, like Quincy Market in Boston, or simple, like a small street cafe in Barcelona. They can be old or modern, but lovable places — like the French Quarter in New Orleans — always have culture. While many in the smart growth movement have focused solely on density and connectivity, Benfield argued that these projects ultimately fail because “they are not great places.” Great places need green spaces to attract people. “We can have both compact development and green spaces together. We can have it both ways.”