“People Habitat”: Kaid Benfield takes Smart Growth to a higher level

For several weeks now I’ve intended to write up my thoughts on “People Habitat,” the recently-released book from NRDC smart growth sensei — and friend — Kaid Benfield. Not that it’s anything he needs, mind you. A quick look at his reviews over on Amazon reveals a diverse collection of accolades, consistent only in their five-star assessments, and I suppose my hesitation has stemmed from a desire to not just heap on a little more well-deserved praise but to add something fresh to the discussion.

One’s review of another’s work often reveals as much about the reviewer as it does about the subject and that was a bit unnerving because, while this may sound hokey to some, I found the book — and its 25 ways to think about greener, healthier cities — curiously spiritual.

And that’s an assessment that probably deserves a little context.

A brief theological aside

PH-CoverI believe we emerged both from and into a state of perfection we were ill-equipped to handle; that we sullied it through our weakness and fallibility; and that the charge of our species is an ongoing, collective effort to transcend the limitations of our instincts and somehow restore the promise of what was lost.

That’s no simple task, and there’s clearly no shortage of disagreement over exactly how we go about doing it, but certain seemingly universal themes do appear to bubble up — extending beyond the boundaries of any one religion or faith tradition.

> One of these is the idea of balance. Of living in harmony. Of humility and recognizing one’s place within and responsibility to all of Creation.

> The other is that we’re somehow able to strengthen or clarify our connection to whatever higher power exists within/among/beyond us (however you characterize it) when we live selflessly in relationship with others.

So that’s where I’m coming from. And it’s why Kaid’s book has made such a wonderful impression.

The city as an environmental tool

To be clear, I don’t think Kaid set out to write something spiritual or would necessarily characterize the book in that way, but I was taken by his deeply considered urban perspective and how, as an intentional creation of mankind, the city so effectively serves what many seem to view as spiritual imperatives.

For example, whether you see nature as the flawless handiwork of the Divine or simply as the product of a universe unfolding in perfect balance, one thing is clear: The intrusion of our imperfect selves does not improve upon it. If we’re to be good stewards — that is, if we’re to act in harmony with all of Creation — then our focus must be on limiting our impacts, not expanding them. Which means organizing ourselves in more enticing and efficient ways that, to whatever degree possible, leave nature be.

Kaid hits this reality, and hits it hard, through personal recollections of his sometimes uncomfortable history with the environmental movement. Like many of his fellow Boomers faced in their youthful exuberance with a planet under siege, he initially saw development — in whatever form — as the enemy but reconciled over time that such black and white thinking was more often worthy of parody than progress. Many among us surely recall Sierra Club members in the 80s and 90s being referred to, quite reasonably, as “Range Rover environmentalists.” Or how about this joke:

What’s the difference between an environmentalist and a developer? An environmentalist has a cabin in the woods while a developer just wants to build one.

Such thinking presents no sustainable solutions. Instead, the preservation of natural habitat is best served through something that, in retrospect, seems so obvious: the creation of better human habitat. And those committed to environmental ends must articulate not just what they’re against but also the far more difficult proposition of what they’re actually for. To that end, Kaid’s book is a treasure trove of both policy and practice.

We got kicked out of the Garden for a reason. I just can’t bring myself to believe that all will be restored by simply kicking our way back in.

The city as a vehicle for transcendence

Not everyone believes separated-use zoning reflects our highest calling.

Another writer who’s had a profound impact on my thinking (and one discussed in “People Habitat”) is Eric Jacobsen, author of both “Sidewalks in the Kingdom” and “The Space Between.” A Presbyterian pastor, Jacobsen writes from a distinctly Christian perspective, but I believe the conclusions he’s drawn are broader than that. In short — and I’m paraphrasing in ways he may or may not be comfortable with — he asserts that the traditional, compact, mixed-type and mixed-use city (as opposed to the suburban ethic of separation and exclusion) is the ultimate spiritual context because it does something no other model can do:

It forces us to contend with the reality of each other.

Consider that for a moment. More common, at least to me, is hearing people speak of spiritual experience in a natural setting, not an urban one. Go off into the woods, hear the wind breathing through the pines, look out on all that is inherently good. Such experiences offer considerable opportunity for reflection which, in and of itself, is no small thing. But connecting with nature, in a superficial sense, is easy. It invites you. It offers no push back.

That’s not the case with other people.

In Jacobsen’s view, we can’t live the life we’re called upon to live in places where we’re removed from all the things — both beautiful and tragic — that humanity has to offer. I tend to agree. Confrontation with the pain experienced by others can be unsettling — even heartbreaking — but it can just as easily be humbling, sustaining and inviting of selfless generosity. All of which, to my perspective, pushes us forward.

The city, when reflective of its historic principles, is where the worst of our self-interest collides with the best of our communal sensibilities; and where security and opportunity intersect with charity and aspiration to nurture the human spirit in fulfilling and unexpected ways.

People Habit” is a blueprint for such places, laid out by someone who understands the challenge as few do. Benfield’s observations and proposals fall well outside the usual model of self-promotional reinvention. Instead, his book presents a sort of love letter to the city, rich in humility and deep affection — not just for our species but for the planet and places we share.

A solid book, wherever you find yourself

I had a hard time writing this because it’s rooted at least as much in my own perspective as it is in Kaid’s. Add to that the fact that his book quite generously features the work of both me and many people I care about and a glowing testimonial feels just a tad self-serving. But ultimately, that’s something I had to get over because the opportunities presented by better “People Habitat” are simply too important to ignore.

Ethereal considerations aside, the work to create an endearing and enduring habitat for all of us carries with it no shortage of practical challenges. Victor Dover, himself a well regarded urban innovator, sums it up this way: “We’ll have to grow and build our way out of the problems left behind by the sprawl era, and we’ll have to do that by shaping cities and repairing suburbs to create places people really love.”

Whether such work will ultimately play some role in eternal life or just the prospect of a better, more rewarding life in the here and now, seems immaterial. All that really matters is that — for a host of reasons — it’s work that needs to be done.

Thankfully, as we journey forth in doing so, we now have “People Habitat,” an articulate and hugely valuable roadmap for getting us there.

Scott Doyon

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