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.
Urban circles echoed with the sound of jaws collectively hitting the floor recently, as the Congress for the New Urbanism made the unexpected announcement that famed architect Robert A.M. Stern would be dropping by CNU 22 in Buffalo to make the case for how the lessons of garden suburbs — which he explores in his new book, “Paradise Planned” — can guide both exurban and inner-city (re)development moving forward.
Almost twenty years ago, just married, my wife and I bought an old house in a friendly but economically depressed old neighborhood. It was, at the time, a predominantly black neighborhood though, like many historic neighborhoods in and around Atlanta that predate our tumultuous, race-driven urban disinvestment of the 60s and 70s, it had also been a predominantly white neighborhood at one point as well.
Its history is significant and, in the almost two decades since, the process of absorbing and understanding it has been a meaningful one. But at the time, all those issues, together with the baggage that accompanies them, simply weren’t on our radar.
Not so long ago, fellow urban scribe and recently elected mayor of Concrete, Washington, Jason Miller, recommended the book, “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.” The timing was fortuitous. For a while, in an ongoing series of internal conversations, I’d been wrestling with a fundamental question of human nature: Are people basically good, with periodic displays of malice and pettiness or, are we born broken and then distinguish ourselves through virtuous acts that transcend our inherent limitations?
“13 Ways” would seem to suggest the latter, though I’ve likely drawn a conclusion unintended by its author, Doug Griffiths, who co-wrote the book with journalist Kelly Clemmer.
If there’s one thing the 20th century gave us, it’s the luxury of not needing each other. It so defines our culture that it’s physically embodied in our sprawling, disconnected landscapes.
That alone begets a classic, chicken-n-egg question: Did the leisurely lure of the suburbs kill our sense of community? Were our social ties unwittingly severed by the meandering disconnection of subdivisions and strip malls or was sprawl just a symptom of something larger? After all, for all their rewards, meaningful relationships take a lot of work. Perhaps, once the modern world elevated our prospects for personal independence, we cut those ties ourselves, willingly, and embraced the types of places that reinforce those inclinations, lest our happy motoring be weighted down with excess emotional baggage.
The places we inhabit are rarely if ever arbitrary. They’re the products of intention. Personal. Economic. Environmental. Religious. We choose for ourselves, individually and collectively, the kind of places we want and — through leadership, policy, investment, advocacy, action and, at times, inaction — those places begin to take form.
It’s a complicated dance of complementary and competing interests. Making it something that happens for us, rather than something that happens to us, requires, perhaps more than anything, a shared understanding of exactly what it is we’re talking about. A common language.
Last week I spent some time in the mountains of southern Virginia visiting my folks. That’s something I not only enjoy but find productive as well, as it affords me opportunity to further explain exactly what it is I do for a living.
For some reason, “telling the story of community placemaking” still leaves them scratching their heads.
No worries. Over the years I’ve found it effective to wait for an in — spending time talking about things of interest to them, then seizing serendipitous moments to tie the subject at hand back to something I’m working on.
I’m big on local. Not because I hate Walmart and 3,000 mile Caesar salads but because, as I see it, communities built on human-scaled, interdependent systems are better suited to taking on the challenges and opportunities presented by time.
That’s why, when it comes to the decisions that most directly impact day-to-day quality of life, I tend to advocate for smaller, more local, more responsive increments of control. Things like neighborhoods, NPUs, districts, and towns.
The world around us, whatever form it takes, comes to reflect the priorities of the people setting policy, making rules, and allocating funds. The more those people understand the nuances of context and maintain a shared stake in the outcome, the better things tend to be.
Git ‘Er Done | Hazel Borys
This year’s CNU was all about doing again, unlike the past few years where we’ve focused on stop-gap measures to redirect our investment choices to more resilient patterns. Looks like they might be starting to pay off. Still, we have plenty of hard work ahead to remove both legal and financial hurdles.