People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities
© 2014 F. Kaid Benfield
The built environment can have an enormous effect on human happiness, facilitating it or obstructing it; think of the frustration of taking care of errands amid sprawl that fills the hours with traffic and redlights, or the enormous pleasure one might find while fulfilling those same errands in a walkable place, with pleasant, casual distractions like coffee shops and parks along the way. The places we live in also have an enormous environmental impact: those who live in well-built urban areas can accomplish much of their daily business without ever having to crank up a car, for instance, and others may have to structure their day around two-hour commutes . In Human Habitat, we find essays exploring both of these aspects of the city, as well as the intersection between them. Although the book’s chapters are separate essays, they were either written to be read together, or smartly edited so that they appear as a whole, and the particular topics topics are often worth considering by themselves, even outside their broader connection.
Humans are not necessarily urban creatures – we existed for hundreds of thousands of years without them – but it’s impossible to imagine human civilization without them. They are its economic engines, its creative kindling, its seats of power. Considering that most of the seven billion people currently alive today live in cities, it’s important to get the design thereof right. Suburban sprawl, which consumes land and forces auto-dependence while isolating people from one another and creating manifestly ugly environments, is not ‘getting it right’. Cities are crucial for environmental sustainability: concentrating human activity into a few uber-efficient spots will limit our impact elsewhere, and allow for better stewardship of our resources. To be truly sustainable, though, cities must be places people want to be. This is crucial, not only to attract people to them, but because it is people’s love for places that will drive efforts to make them more sustainable, and to protect them from challenges in the future. Baid’s essays touch on different aspects of both human pleasure and environmental friendliness, and are often incisive. His second essay scrutinizes “green architecture”, which pats itself on the back for using renewable materials but ignores completely the context of the building. A ‘green building’ in suburbia that can only be reached or departed by car is as green as coal is clean. Another memorable essay points to the need for childhood to be a time of exploration, and how cities should be places that encourage that – by making pedestrian activity safe, for instance ,and creating places kids can be kids instead of having to experience childhood either as little army bots, being shuttled from one regimented activity after another in an Armored Kid Carrier (the modern SUV) or being forced to look for stimulation from an ipad. Kaid also explores more controversial terrain, like a need for balance in gentrification – allowing people to come in to add value to places, but not so quickly or in ways that existing citizens are forced out , the appropriate role of agriculture in the city, and the vital role bars can play as ‘third places‘.
I found this a most interesting collection, given the variety of topics within and the author’s priority – not fulfilling metrics of green viability, but in making human life within cities happier and healthier. He touches on areas ignored by many other urban writers – like the important role played by neighborhood churches in cities, for instance, and he does this while not being a believer himself. Although some of the topics would only be of interest to serious urban nuts (the kind who listen to podcasts or watch Youtube channels about urban design, for instance), even the casual reader might find it enjoyable to get a taste of these topics in an essay without diving into a full-scale monograph.
Happy City, Charles Montgomery
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck
The Green Metropolis, David Owens
The Geography of Nowhere, Jim Kunstler
The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, Alexandra Lange. Not one I’ve read but one I want to.