People Habitat Communications, 2014, pbk, 304pp
Reviewed by Marian McCain
The catchy term ‘people habitat’ arises from the belief that wildlife does best when it has a realm that is primarily its own, and we humans have the same, i.e., in the author’s words: ‘a place where wildlife is secondary and people primary.’
Human beings have been creating cities, towns and villages for millennia, but those places have been shaped by many forms of happenstance and not all of the settlements that dot our planet thickly in these modern times are ideal people habitat.
Moreover, since the discovery of oil and the invention of motor vehicles the forces that have shaped our living arrangements have changed radically. Little attention was paid, last century, to the possible long-term effects of ribbon development, suburban sprawl and corporate phenomena like Walmart. Little notice was taken of increasing pollution and rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Little thought was given to the fact that non-renewable resources like oil and coal would inevitably run out or to the possibility that technology might not be capable of inventing something else to replace them with quickly—or ever. And now, much of our human habitat is rapidly becoming unsustainable as well as ugly and unlovable.
Benfield’s focus and most of the research he quotes is very much about highly car-dependent North America. The eco-problems there are much worse than in Europe because of the size of that continent and the historical lack of alternative transport infrastructures such as thick networks of railway lines and canals. Nevertheless there is a lot that we can all learn from this book, wherever we live, because the underlying things that human beings need from their habitat are similar everywhere. As well as easy access to the places we go to for shopping, services, leisure and socializing we need comfort, cosiness, connectedness, clean air, beauty, lovability, convenience, safety, walkability, atmosphere, diversity and other subtle qualities of place that are hard to name but which we all recognize with our hearts.
Since the book is actually a collection of essays that the author has published over the years, each chapter has a different theme. The overall values expressed in these essays are those originally delineated by the ‘smart growth’ movement. Smart growth means growing upwards and inwards rather than outwards. That means turning existing cities into dense, mixed-use urban environments with high ‘walkability,’ excellent public transit, cycle paths etc., along with greening and revitalizing run-down neighbourhoods and finding ways to retrofit existing suburbs to cope with changing demographics, changing work patterns and dwindling natural resources such as coal and oil.
This author also singles out for discussion certain aspects of habitat that he believes are especially important such as trees and parks and alternatives to ‘big box’ shopping malls. He talks about changes in work habits such as the increase in telecommuting and also of the crucial importance of good design. He looks at what makes a place distinctive, what gives it a special atmosphere, what contributes to a feeling of wellbeing and what constitutes a desirable neighbourhood. He also discusses food and the growth of city gardens, the social significance of pubs, churches and schools, people’s ability to ‘age in place’ and the role of car-driving in the habitats of our future.
Obviously there are many problems still to be solved and when it comes to making our existing towns and cities truly sustainable we have barely even begun. But books like this, which set us on the right track—i.e. thinking in terms of the true health and welfare of our own species and all the others and of the planet as a whole, rather than in terms of short-term profit and short-sighted economic ‘growth’—are a very good start. This sort of material should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in decision-making about any aspect of ‘people habitat.’