An Interview with Kaid Benfield, Newly-Announced ‘Senior Counsel’ for PlaceMakers

Kaid Benfield, newly-announced ‘Senior Counsel’ for PlaceMakers.

Kaid Benfield, newly-announced ‘Senior Counsel’ for PlaceMakers.

Many of you know — or know of — Kaid Benfield, who’s led smart growth and sustainability initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council for two decades. Kaid is stepping down from his NRDC post. And we’re delighted to announce that he’ll become Senior Counsel for Environmental Strategies for PlaceMakers, effective the first of January.

See our press release detailing the announcement here.

In addition to his NRDC duties, Kaid teaches law, policy, and best practices for sustainable communities at the George Washington University School of Law. His latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, distributed by Island Press. And his print and online articles have appeared in, among other places, The Huffington Post, Sustainable Cities, Better Cities & Towns, Atlantic Cities (now CityLab), and NRDC websites. 

We asked Kaid to give us his idea of where we are in the effort to integrate smart growth strategies in the broadest sense into community planning and design.

PlaceMakers: You recently wrote in your Huffington Post blog that you were concerned about smart growth becoming dumb growth if planning and design practitioners can’t ratchet up their awareness of — and strategies for coping with — growing challenges. Among those challenges: The aging of the population, the growing wealth gap. What else?

Kaid Benfield: I think that the basic ingredients of smart growth — access on foot to nearby conveniences, expanded transportation choices, giving priority to urban infill before developing new green land — are quite well positioned to accept demographic trends. All indications are that consumer preferences are moving more away from sprawling subdivisions and more toward cities and walkable suburbs. Where we need to do better, though, is with respect to social inclusion — not just newer demographics but also older ones in inner-city neighborhoods — and with respect to the environment.

PM: Which implies, on a broader scale, difficult-to-address issues around assuring access to opportunity — whether we’re talking community affordability, transportation choice, jobs or all the other components of community health and prosperity now classified under the heading of “equity.” But given the current political and economic environment, what policies have a chance to make the kinds of differences you’re talking about?

KB: We’re not going to succeed in this environment with sweeping policy changes. We need to fix equity problems first in our own organizations. America is increasingly multi-colored, but the smart growth movement, the environmental community, and new urbanism remain overwhelmingly white. That’s not a good strategy for building consensus and trust in the 21st century.

Second, we need to address equity one neighborhood and one community at a time. Focus on what we can do, not what may be out of reach in a badly broken political system.

PM: From your work in NRDC, you’re especially tuned to the needs for integrating the experience of nature into urban design. But some in the new urbanist/smart growth movement are nervous about what they see as attempts to remake the human-center city into something more like human-less nature. How do we get to an approach that gets the proportions right?

KB: Setting up an opposing dichotomy between “people” and “nature” certainly doesn’t help. People need nature, as I wrote in People Habitat.  Look at what Jonathan Rose and his partners did with Via Verde in the South Bronx: rooftop gardens for low-income residents in the most highly urban setting imaginable. Look at things like green alleys and pervious pavement, helping clean dirty waterways while remaining decidedly urban. Make use of pocket parks and green courtyards. Plant more street trees and use strategically designed native landscaping to absorb storm water before it becomes polluted runoff.

As long as we avoid doing things that are blatantly anti-urban, like putting an 80-acre “urban” farm on top of a busy downtown transit stop, we can do all sorts of things to bring nature into cities. Let’s embrace the challenge and work on new and creative ways to do it that don’t interfere with urban function.

PM: You also seem willing to needle some of the density-first folks in urbanist circles. Under what conditions is it important to respect the need for less density, even in urban contexts?

KB: In People Habitat I wrote about something I call “the environmental paradox of smart growth.” Density is usually good for us when we consider problems on a regional level — it reduces regional traffic, it helps save pristine watersheds outside of town. But at the local, site-specific level, it can increase environmental problems from noise to automotive emissions to local stream pollution.

Part of the answer is mitigation, integrated with strategic use of nature as I said earlier. But another part is being careful and strategic with density. Heaven knows, low-density sprawl is completely unsustainable. But that shouldn’t mean that Manhattan or Hong Kong densities are always the best answer. There’s a place for tall buildings, but there’s also a place for more incremental approaches that are much more dense than sprawl but also feel human-scaled. Getting it right depends in every case upon local circumstances. And design matters, too. Sensitivity is key.

PM: Finally, community involvement in planning efforts is at the top of just about everyone’s agendas — at least in theory. But disruptive tactics of some groups, whether they’re driven by animosity towards government in general or fearful of change in their own neighborhoods, threaten the environments that make meaningful collaboration possible. How can we do make community planning more inclusive and more effective?

KB: Well, no one said this is easy, right? A starting premise is that we certainly don’t want to talk only with those who already agree with us. We want to hear diverse viewpoints and learn from them. A little compromise is not a bad thing if the result is community ownership of a plan or proposal.

That said, there’s no place for incivility in constructive discourse. We have little choice but to set a welcoming, cordial example with community members and do the best we can. I think most — if not all — people respect that approach.

Ben Brown

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Comments

  1. Not enough car free emphasis. To bad. The key to new cities is integration of all elements to scale and elimination of vehicles to the periphery of mile square or circle spaces.

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  1. [...] to Kaid Benfield‘s People Habitat for clueing me into this great design in the first place. For this and many [...]

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