F. Kaid Benfield's People Habitat

By Jerry Weitz, FAICP

Benfield, F. Kaid. People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-98975-110-0.

Kaid Benfield has written a lively, easy-to-read, collection of essays about improving cities so they offer more appropriate habitat for people.

As the title implies, the book consists of 25 themed essays, plus a prologue and epilogue. It is slightly autobiographical. The author shares experiences from Asheville, North Carolina (where he grew up); Atlanta; and the Washington, D.C., region. The essays move readers far beyond those areas to many others, including Portland, Oregon; New Orleans; and even international places like the empty New South China Mall in Dongguan, China; the suburbs of Freiburg, Germany, and a neighborhood in East Berlin. We learn of Benfield's past as an environmentalist and Smart Growth advocate, his love of bicycling, and his involvement in bands. We also learn of his favorite park and scenic highway, and that he was raised as a Protestant.

The personal approach is appropriate given that Benfield's intent is to describe what we need to do to make our suburbs and urban areas more habitable. One cannot talk on that subject without relating conclusions to one's own experiences. The personal approach colors the essays and makes them more vivid and meaningful. Yet the personal references are not overwhelming or overdone, which is a plus for any work that includes slightly or semi-autobiographical content.

There is some solid research in the essays. One will find a national perspective in some of the essays, such as statistics about energy use. The essays help planners learn about (or be reminded of) important laws and programs such as California's SB 375, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and concepts like green infrastructure. Benfield is not shy in providing his thoughts about future policy directions. He discusses the need to address such issues as design, place-making, gentrification, preservation, climate change, and resilience.

To suggest how planners should go about improving urban and suburban areas for better people habitat, one has to have some understanding of future trends. Benfield shines in describing how much people and society have changed since he was young. The book contributes significantly to our understanding of evolving demographic trends, including a discussion about intergenerational communities.

As the subtitle implies, Benfield describes how urban form affects individual wellness and public health. For instance, he shares from his own readings the notion of "wellness lenses" (p. 135) and a "public index of happiness" (p. 140). Benfield builds in lightly empirical discussions of relationships between health and settlement form, enough to grasp the significance of what planners need to do. He also highlights the dismal state of walkability in suburban areas, and he references planning analysis tools such as WalkScore. His attention to these topics (along with very nice illustrations) will make the book an enjoyable read for advocates of better pedestrian mobility. He also addresses issues of farming in the city. Yet there is not so much of the technical information that it sounds preachy or reads like a textbook. Benfield has struck the right chord and achieved an appropriate balance between readability and fact/science with his essay format.

The evolution of Benfield's own thinking is apparent in many of the essays. Perhaps the most important contribution is Benfield's call to move beyond environmentalism and return the Smart Growth movement to its root objectives, some of which we seem to have forgetten. Benfield still takes square aim at reforming our automobile-dominated landscape, nonetheless. I especially appreciate his indictment of how localities site their schools. Benfield also appears to start parting company with new urbanists, at least in his suggestion that we can achieve objectives of good urban form with only moderate densities. Further, he cautions about placing suburban and even new urbanist developments in places where they might despoil the working landscape.

The book barely touches on theory; it is very briefly introduced in a few select places. There is brief mention of the importance of equity near the end of the book, but the notion of social equity doesn't come across as strongly as I would have hoped. Because People Habitat (by its design) is not a book for further reference, it doesn't earn a permanent place on the practitioner's bookshelf. Yet, with its references to techniques and examples of problems with our current people habitat, it will surely encourage practicing planners to retrofit our neighborhoods and communities into greener, healthier places to live. I am certain that I will return to it for information and inspiration.

Jerry Weitz, FAICP, is editor of Practicing Planner.

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