Author: F. Kaid Benfield (Island Press, 2013)
One thing I am constantly reminded of when reviewing the many books I’ve had the opportunity to read is that, even though all the varying topics thrill me, they are not my current profession. As a result, I am sometimes worried that my words don’t carry as much weight, as I have only experienced from a single vantage point. F. Kaid Benfield changed that outlook for me in People Habitat, as he is himself a lawyer—not an urban planner, not an architect, and not a designer, although he has friends who are all of the above (much like myself).
It was truly a witty and interesting ride to take with Benfield as he charged through several differing topics related to our urban (and suburban) environments. There was a sense of rawness to it that you don’t see when someone has meticulously worked in their profession for years. This also lends itself to a broader view (and sometimes odd assumptions) of where the state of our progress into our urban environments is at.
The book itself is comprised of twenty five essays, all of which cover different topics that have to do with “People Habitat[s]”. The titles are as diverse as the topics with examples like, What Seems Green May Actually Be Brown, or In a Revitalizing District, Some Gentrification Might Be OK; but Not Too Much. The book goes on with twenty three more of these personally charged essays about all sorts of elements that factor into our urban world.
Throughout, Benfield isn’t afraid of filling the pages with his opinions. He makes smart arguments, and backs them up with interesting facts. The anecdotal information he dolls out early in the essay is definitely engaging enough to keep readers hooked for his more pragmatic takes on the situation, often given later in the piece. For instance, below is a section from the aforementioned gentrification essay that demonstrates how Benfield swiftly moves from opinion to argument:
My own belief is that we should be working for revitalization that encourages mixed-income neighborhoods in which new residents and businesses are welcomed while displacement is avoided or minimized. But make no mistake: the revitalization must continue to take place in America’s cities. It is absolutely essential if we are to have any hope of a more sustainable tax base to fun civic restoration and improvement, a more equitable civil society, and a more environmentally sustainable pattern of growth that reduces sprawling consumption of the landscape while bringing down our rates of driving emissions (central locations with moderate or greater density and nearby conveniences facilitate walking, transit, and shorter driving distances).
As someone “outside the field” it is empowering to see that others, beyond those only in places we assume drive change, can understand and articulate problems that appear to be only accessible to professionals.
When Benfield speaks of “Dulles Town Center,” a shopping center in Sterling, Virgina and how they are planning a huge development there, visions of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise or Millennium People shivered through my spine. Both books center on the built environment, High Rise looking at a class war between people living in a building with a surplus of amenities and luxuries, while Millennium People looked at a shopping center that becomes the site of a community-based hostage situation based on the same eerie complacency of suburban living. It is as if boredom drives these ideas, and when Benfield writes that the development in Dulles has “proposed to build over 1,600 new multifamily homes and up to 5.5 million square feet of commercial space on land adjacent to the mall,” part of you feels excited that some density is creeping up around these suburban shopping experiences, but other aspects sound unnecessary in the first place. If “Dulles Town Center” is still in the middle of nowhere, will people be satiated by 5.5 million square feet of shopping (and frankly, is it really necessary)? And will this lead to the listless, seemingly innocuous battles that are prophesied in the pages of the J.G. Ballard books, where so much freedom and life in excess in the middle of nowhere ultimately leads to chaos?
There were a few parts of the book I had trouble with, albeit small parts. Over the course a few sections a variety of people come under fire for certain design decisions or theories that they posit. From Brad Pitt’s role in the rebuilding of homes after Hurricane Katrina, to Jeff Speck’s fantastic book Walkable Cities (and the idea that Speck focuses on areas that are already easily walkable, biasing his views). This is the one drawback to opinion pieces versus fact (and I mean this in regards to the all editorial pieces) as both sides have their take as to what is right, and details can be lost in the flurry.
With all of that said, the book was fantastic. To have little arguments here and there in a work of opinion is to be expected, and hopefully welcomed. It is this dialogue that we have that sparks the truly creative ideas. While Benfield doesn’t have a degree in any one specific profession that deals with these issues head on, he seems leaps and bounds ahead of some other people who have a sole view of looking at things through a narrow lense—one of the benefits of not being a specialist. Toward the very end of the book there was an interesting take which highlights this fact:
Unfortunately, the fact that we are increasing dwelling units per acre, reducing vehicle miles traveled per capita, and reducing tons of carbon emissions compared to sprawl, does not mean that we are making [a] great habitat for people. In fact, we now see that one can do exactly these things while making mediocre places without respite, without opportunity, without nourishment.
Most people would take the numbers he mentioned in the beginning, the lowered vehicle miles, the increased dwellings, and they would close the book. On the other side, someone may not be interested in those numbers at all, and may feel that beauty and creativity is what needs to be commonplace.
Either way, Benfield looks at the problem of our Urban Environments, our “People Habitat” with a critical eye on both the statistical numbers, and the aesthetic beauty—both vitally important to our continued thriving nature on this planet. People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities was a fabulous read, with many areas which could spark arguments between passionate voices, something that we need to start doing more of.
For more information, visit the People Habitat website.
Jeremy Senko is happily lost in the world of theoretical architecture and design. He is forever a student at heart, consistently reading, experiencing and learning about the world he inhabits. More specifically, he recently completed his Bachelor of Interior Design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where he pushed the limits (and the patience) of his professors.