Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: 'People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities' by F. Kaid Benfield

Review by Susan Gardner

People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities
By F. Kaid Benfield
People Habitat Communications
$20.48 Paperback, $10.83 Kindle
304 pages
January 2014

McKibben's latest work dovetails nicely with a set of 25 essays about urban design and space by sustainability activist F. Kaid Benfield, who works at the National Resources Defense Council as a special counsel for urban solutions and who teaches at George Washington University School of Law.
Benfield approaches urban environments not from his law background, but as an avid pedestrian and simple lover of cities. This set of essays ranges over topics as obvious as transportation and density requirements to the more subjective question of what makes certain "people habitats"—as he terms our cities—so lovable and others so … well, unlovable.

It's not as simple, he discovers, as designing by numbers, i.e., having this amount of residents per square block, or a specific number of mixed-use buildings per square mile. There is some other sort of "lovability" index beyond the well-known "walkability" scores that make certain streets and quarters magnets for residents and tourists to hang out. Part of it is history, part of it is in use of light, part of it is in peppering streets with inviting spaces and quirky visual draws. The main attraction of one street over another is often hard to quantify and name, but the areas that make you want to linger instead of stride on through carry a magical attraction.
Benfield, even as an urban enthusiast, notes that while people definitely are social animals and like to congregate, they also have a need for privacy, solitude and nature. As he discusses cities from Paris to Madrid, from Asheville to San Francisco, he finds the nooks and crannies that help explain what separates the adequate city from the marvelous: reliable public transportation and local shopping draws, it should go without saying. But he also spots such amenities as pocket parks, courtyards, unexpected vistas that open up, wide sidewalks, outdoor seating at lively cafes. All of these add up to an ineffable vibrancy that is luring millennials and retirees alike back to city living after the wide open spaces and visual (and often mental) boredom of the 20th-century sprawling suburbs.
Older suburbs, the ones located around the rings of older American cities, are re-experiencing a resurgence as well, and the patterns of parks, nature walks, small local businesses and the unexpected are explored by Benfield as he looks back at where we've settled in the past and what our new re-settlings mean for the future. This is more a philosophical set of essays than design blueprints, as he finds meaning in how the environments we create speak to how we value our health, our work and our relationships as we find fulfilling ways to live together.
It's truly a delightful and leisurely read, and .... points to how we need to get over our addiction to fossil fuels, invest our time and thought in how we build our primary communities, and the importance we place on preserving not just the natural world, but our cities, for future generations.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.