People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities

book jacket people habitat nice photos of charming town sitesPeople Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities by F. Kaid Benfield (2014)

One thing that none of the pushers for multi-family dwellings ever address involves NEIGHBORS. Single-family dwellings are desirable over anything else — not because people have no interest in environmental impact — but because dealing with other people can be a nightmare. Thin walls are not funny in reality.  Even single homes can have issues: Good fences make good neighbors!

Unless some law or soundproofing regulations or roving enforcers with martial arts skills are part of every multi-family dwelling, the problems of conflicts between people will still drive people who can afford it to buy single-family homes. Plus they are going to want big lots so there is distance between them and still noisy neighbors.

The author begins talking about cities by saying “It’s not really about cities.” Cities are a legal construct, and he declares a need to look beyond that to metropolitan regions. This is good advice because the way cities have developed, it can be hard to tell where one begins and another ends. That’s how it is in many places, Columbus, Ohio for one. A little town called Arlington remains a town to itself despite basically being surrounded completely by Columbus.

The D.C. metro area amused me because driving one way you end up in Maryland, another the town of Alexandria, and people routinely go about their business without caring what the legal boundaries of the various places are.

He also points out that the environmental features cross boundaries. My city has a river that bisects it. When I drove some friends around to see places where my extended family lives and other sights, I found myself repeating over and over again, and now we’ve crossed the river again.

Transporation needs also need to have some regional basis since in our area, 13,000 people commute into town from smaller towns nearby.

The author concludes that regional consideration must be part of city planning. He cites Portland, Oregon as the exemplar of urban planning.

Multi-jurisdictional Authority and Cooperation in Portland

Metropolitan Portland, Oregon has the nation’s only directly elected regional government. First established in 1978, Metro’s primary mission is conducting planning and adopting policy to preserve and enhance the quality of life and the environment. This includes authority over transportation investments, land use, and administration of the region’s urban growth boundary (outside of which nonrural development generally may not occur), along with regional fish and wildlife habitat protection, and management of some parks and waste management facilities. It has six councilors, each representing a Metro Council president by his or her peers annually. Metro is served by a staff of 700 employees.(p. 8)

Portland, Oregon, is a much-admired city for many things, and I think that this Metro approach may be the key to how it developed so well.

However, appealing the regional approach might be, it really doesn’t work for smaller midwestern towns. Jurisdictional issues between multiple cities and towns and multiple counties just create too many barriers I think. I’m not saying the regional impact should be ignored, but implementing an overarching binding political entity would have too many conflicts of interests to be effective.

In several of the next few chapters, the author discusses how some of the “green” developments are not so green, for example when a green building is but one in a sprawling location.

The troubling part of the entire concept of the book is that it basically requires massive amounts of money to achieve the maximum green. He describes one couples renovation of a 112-year-old home. Using an old home is “better” than a new home because, “by contrast, a builder must use energy and release emissions as a result of manufacturing, transportation, and construction of materials. The materials in the Grocoffs’ historic home also need not be extracted anew from natural resource lands. Occupancy of the older structure by new residents is the ultimate recycling.” (p. 24)

The thing is, there are not enough 112-year-old houses to go around. Most houses are not “historic” in craftsmanship, aesthetics, or on land that alone might be “affordable” by even 200% over the average median income. They also require extensive renovation, which is not cheap, and of course, you have to live somewhere else while it is going on. This family:

has renovated their home to state-of-the-art energy efficiency standards, including the installation of energy-efficient appliances and household fixtures, the placement of solar panels on the roof, and the use of geothermal heating and cooling. Utility bills demonstrate the results: the household actually generates more energy from on-site renewable sources than it consumes from heating, cooling, lighting, and maintaining the household. The house is not just “net zero” but energy positive.(p. 24)

It is a fantasy world the author proposes; a world that will never be possible when millions of children are denied medical care, and the minimum wage isn’t enough to cover rent, let alone save for a mortgage now on crappy little post-war cube homes with only an upstairs bathroom and no garage much less an attached garage.

But for the family with the historic home, they have more money to go even further.

“They aren’t stopping there, either. Having conquered the energy issues, the Grocoffs are now taking on water: the next goal is to capture enough rainwater and recycle enough graywater for non-drinking uses to become net zero for water consumption too.” (p. 24)

The book is copyright 2014 but I am pretty sure that some towns in,  if not the whole state of Colorado tried to make capturing rainwater illegal.  I am not making that up. Ah, it hit the news in 2014 so maybe after the book was published. Besides which, the nature of the book is not to imagine there might be a state that in its Constitution bans “rainwater harvesting.” It apparently has not been enforced, and a 2014 allotment modified the zero legal collection to a nominal amount.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!

We may not be on a ship stranded in the ocean like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, but polluters have decimated our potable water sources.

Then there is Flint, Michigan, which has been poisoned by the stupidity of cheapskate state officials with lead-leaching pipes for years with no end in sight. The Federal government doesn’t even choose to spend the money it would take to stop killing the brain cells of everyone forced to live in Flint. They can’t leave either. This is not a time of human compassion over naked capitalism.

Speaking of leaching, I remember Love Canal. It was 1978 and Jimmy Carter was President. Love Canal was a small town in New York State that had been built on a former chemical landfill. I guess people were stupid back then, and still are, since every year one or more environmental disasters hit the news. Soon to be many more given the current EPA director wants to eliminate the Agency completely.

Love Canal homeowners were bought out by the Federal government for about $7 million dollars; there were 221 families relocated. Housing units in Flint in 2010 about 51,321 (from census data). Population of 97,386. Do the math. Remember too that Republican billionaires and millionaires are in charge of the government now and just presented a tax reform bill that will give them millions and millions of dollars more, cause a deficit of 1.2 trillion dollars or more, and will have so many other worse consequences, that we are all doomed.

Green is for those who can afford it

But okay, let’s go back and see the promise of green.

Moreover, in this case, the home is green not only with respect to building energy but also with respect to transportation energy: it is in a walkable city neighborhood amidst other older homes, on compact lots on well-connected streets, with services and amenities close by. All of those characteristics have been proven by research to be associated with reduced driving, reduced carbon emissions, and increased walking and fitness. When I took a look at the house’s location on Google Earth, I discovered three schools within a block’s walk, and a transit line also a block away. There’s a small neighborhood park just down the street. There’s a market, a bank branch, and several restaurants within a ten- to twelve-minute walk. Yet the Grocoffs’ lot is in a leafy neighborhood of mostly single-family homes.(p. 24)

Aw, shucks, it’s going to be hard to provide all of that and green it too for 326 million people and counting in the U.S.A. 

China probably made the “energy-efficient appliances” the author praises and that probably contributed to massive pollution in their country and made at slaves wages. The cost of disposal of the old appliances does not get a mention. He also states that the little town with its central orientation shortens trips. Yup, right up until more and more growth builds that circle out and now you have a hub and spoke system for transit and congestion to get to that charming downtown.

His dream world does not scale.

Of course, we know that “well-located housing” maximizes “green.” By definition though, we cannot all have well-located housing unless we distribute amenities like grocery stores and mixed-use among the entire city, not just a downtown.

Recently at a talk by a gentleman promoting “healthy cities” presented similar tunnel vision view of how to create such a thing. When I mentioned, after the talk, that he failed to address food deserts, he responded, “Huh?” He didn’t know what they were much less why it was a problem in most cities in America. I think he lives in New York with a bodega on every corner. That works with massive tenement buildings and millions of people in a small geographic area not bisected by a river, but pretty much isn’t like that in any other town or even big cities here.

Stormwater Runoff

Stormwater runoff might not sound like a big deal but it is because stormwater is not just rain. Rain becomes “polluted runoff when it flows over impervious surfaces — such as highways, parking lots, rooftops and driveways — on its way into our rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. The federal EPA estimates that more runoff enters our surface waters each year, degrading recreation, destroying fish habitat, and altering stream ecology and hydrology”. (p. 54)

This is one reason why cities are putting in more trees and other vegetation as “natural sponges for runoff.” Why anyone would think that pollution from runoff has no further consequences to the trees and vegetation is anyone’s guess. I’ve read about this before back a decade or so ago when green roofs were all the rage.

Hmm. Here’s a good point. On page 56 he cites Philadelphia as the leading example of green infrastructure implementation. The vegetation absorbing the runoff KEEPS IT OUT OF THE SEWER SYSTEM. This profoundly impacts the quantity of water going through over-burdened pipes at 80-90% — wow!

Environmental Paradox of Smart Growth

Finally, he brings some realism to the smart growth new urbanism (that’s not that new) juggernaut, admitting that clustering more in cities “to save nature.” (p. 108) But living in tight quarters has detriments, as do all places I am sure. He cites small-lot neighborhoods and people using power tools in their backyard. Not tranquil.

We like to sleep with the windows open, but on nice evenings the 20-somethings in the group house across the street like to hang out on their front porch until the wee hours. Who wants to sleep with earplugs?(p. 108)

Yup, and there it is, people have different and conflicting lifestyles. Maybe urban planners could spend a lot more time on the human element that they have been to date. I remember some experiments with rats being kept in crowded cages and their stress levels were off the charts, bad-tempered, and lashing out. Well, duh! So with the urban planners shoving us all into “multi-family, multi-use” buildings with cars coming and going into the garage or into the commercial sections, I doubt anyone would be able to sleep with their windows open. Living in New York, I certainly would not, unless the windows had a locking gate.

He goes on to admit:

Mass transit isn’t always the most pleasant and nourishing experience, either (though sometimes it is).” (p. 108)

What he could be referring to is beyond me when he says sometimes transit is a nourishing experience. Nourishing and mass transit are not words anyone I know would ever be an experience.

Misplaced Zeal

The author references some urban planners who agree that this zeal for new urbanism aka jam the people into crackerboxes, needs to be “tempered to accommodate the human need for occasional relief from social interaction…” Yeah, relief from other people, please! He quotes “Scott Doyon, one of Susan Henderson’s partners in the town planning and development advisory firm PlaceMakers.

“We…took the suburban promise of independence and personal space to some pretty ridiculous –and dysfunctional — extremes but, in attempting to correct them, we’ve since made the mistake of confusing the need with the manner in which we satisfied it.

“Simply put, sometimes the last thing we want to do is experience another person. And that’s okay. Very few (perhaps none) of us are ‘on’ all the time. At times, we do need to pull back, to be alone or with an intimate gathering of carefully chosen people.

Community, for all its benefits, is a tiring endeavor. [!] But that’s a hard thing to consider when the larger conversation…is focused on all the measurable ways urbanism can help us solve our problems — from the environmental to the economic to the social.(pp. 108-109)


VMT Vehicle Miles Traveled

The concept of measuring the environmental impact of cars uses the concept of vehicle miles traveled. This is described on p. 158 as “the inverse of the distance to downtown.” Perhaps I don’t understand it very well because I sort of think well, of course, the further away you live from the downtown of your city (and presumably workplace) the more miles you must travel. Oh, he is quoting someone, and the point they really want to make is that density and diversity are often the measures emphasized but that in fact, the design metrics in street design features like “intersection density and street connectivity” are significant. “Both short blocks and many interconnections apparently shorten travel distances to about the same extent.

Ah, there’s more good stuff but you have to read carefully. I had marked the page but a glance just made me wonder why, but worth it.

In addition to the effect on rates of driving, Ewing and Cervero also found that, among the characteristics studied, street networks with a high rate of intersections and street connections per square mile are the most strongly correlated with high rates of walking. This makes sense, because a high degree of street connectivity creates alternate routes to destinations, in many cases offering walking distances that are shorter and more direct. Distance to a store was the second most influential factor in influencing walking, with the location and the accessibility of transit next. (Most transit trips begin and end with walking.)

“Interestingly, neighborhood density, when separated from other factors, was found to be LESS SIGNIFICANT than other characteristics in influencing both miles traveled and vehicle trips, although still influential. On its face, this would seem to contradict a substantial body of literature that associates increasing DENSITY with REDUCED DRIVING. Ewing and Cervero suggest that perhaps measures of density are INADVERTENTLY acting as proxies for other SIGNIFICANT FACTORS (“i.e., dense settings commonly have mixed uses, short blocks, and central location, all of which shorten trips and encourage walking”). . .

“The best news is that Ewing and Cervero have found that the effects of the various individual factors studied — location, transit, connectivity, land use mix, and design — are additive in reducing driving and increasing walking. If a municipality or develop is able to take advantage of (or strengthen) all fo them, the result will be a more sustainable development than if some are missing. What Ewing and Cervero (and all the researchers whose studies they analyzed) have given us a science to go with the art of better placemaking. (pp. 158-160)

drawing of good urban design in Denver from Habitat book

Page 160 Denver development

This section concludes with an interesting mention of the town of Vauban in Freiburg, Germany. Vauban is an experimental suburb that seeks to eliminate cars in the suburb. If you want to own a car, you have to park at the edge of town after spending $40,000 (cites 2009 article by Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times) for a parking place. It is “home to 5,500 residents within a rectangular square mile.

Well, of course, if nothing is more than a mile away, that would be an easy walk for most able-bodied people. They apparently ride a lot of bicycles, with carts attached for buying groceries. I’m guessing it is pretty flat. Oh, ha ha. I just saw his parenthetical remark “It must not be hilly.

The book and Wikipedia say it was “built on the site of a former French military base” so I guess they razed it all and built from scratch. Not really helpful to my local hilly and already spread out beyond a square mile. But I did like the Wiki entry that showed a bright and varied use of color!

The Walk Score

The book referenced something I had heard of before but never looked up: the Walk Score. It is pretty fun to fool around to see what various spots have for communte times, nearby services, or as was the case with many of the spots I picked ZERO score and zero bus routes. Not without fails, however, since one apartment complex was listed twice with one bad walk score and one very good walk score. I happened to know it had a bus stop at the entrance, a grocery store across the street, and shopping centers nearby so I know the higher score was right.

One other thing not ever mentioned by the proponents of multi-use, multi-family complexes is the noise levels would invariably be higher. People don’t often imagine things with smell-o-vision, or noise soundtracks. This is not to say other spots don’t have issues. Many times I have wished the lawn mowing firms at condos or townhouse locations didn’t always seem to start at the crack of dawn. Then too, the garbage trucks invariably screech and thud at 5 a.m. wherever one lives, a Murphy’s Law thing I am sure.

Medium Density

I suppose one too-easy answer is that there never has been and never should be a one-size-fits-all approach to smart growth and urbanism. We can and should provide a variety of environments that offer a range of living choices while staying well within the framework of sustainability. People who value community over quiet should be able to choose that, and vice versa. New Urbanism offers the urban-to-rural “transect” as a way of providing different levels of appropriate urban intensity in different parts of a region.

“But the availability of choices within urban settings can be tough to realize on the ground, where real-world development occurs in limited-scale, scattered fashion, one parcel here, another there, with developers eager to maximize returns on investment.(p. 110)

He does say that we may have gone too far with the high-density stuff and need to kick back to some moderate density development too. He cites “10 to 20 homes per acre” as a general target. However, he notes that it would not be useful to do this in the “far outer ‘burbs” to achieve a positive impact on environmental issues.

book jacket for the visual display of quantitative information by Edward TufteI have no idea what 10 to 20 per acre looks like so I will have to look it up and do a diagram, maybe with some other options for comparison. Love those “visual displays of quantitative information.”




Chapter 18 (of the 25 ways of the title) is “Walk, Drink, Walk Back” which is particularly amusing to me since our city just installed a “drunk fence” costing between $140,000 and $170,000. It goes the length of one ordinary city block (i.e. shorter than New York City’s long blocks). The puzzling thing to me as to how this got to be such a fast and done deal, is that other useful items were vetoed by the Mayor ($22,000 to livestream and record public meetings so they would be more accessible).

Furthermore, the fence is located in the middle of a new median in the middle of the street. This means a drunk cannot cross the road, but it does not keep them from stepping into traffic from the curb at all.

Basically, the author advocates the need for a community to have “third space” areas. The third space, “nine times out of ten, it’s a bar.” (Michael Hickey, p. 172)

I think this is the role many coffee shops have taken on these days with so many more people preferring not to drink or be around drunks. Plus they are places that are family-friendly, and where women are no assumed to be looking for a man. Neighborhood fitness centers with cafes and kids play areas would be another non-bar option.

Hickey, however, sings the praises of bars for what they are. He coins a phrase for hanging out that the author likes: “lingering index.” I like that phrase too. It includes some of what I advocate to be included as part of the building of “transportation nodes” including park and ride lots, transit, and I propose cafes, daycare, and other amenities to make the hubs destinations as well.

I remember in Italy, they had coffee bars with long-standing only bars that many people would stop by, have a chat, an espresso, and then be on their way. If you wanted table service, it cost you more for the same thing. Which makes sense since some server has to bring it to you and clean up. I don’t recall the tipping policy there, if any, but it kind of makes more sense to charge a fixed price for table service by the items ordered rather than the variable generosity of customers to make up for a non-living wage.

In Ireland, there were definitely plenty of neighborhood pubs to enjoy the convivial company and often live music. Singing along encouraged.

The cities in the US still bear the history and values of the Puritans and the good idea badly implemented concept behind Prohibition. (Adult men drinking their wages away while wife and children go hungry.)

I can’t imagine any city allowing a bar to locate out in a residential area. But I can see the benefit of a coffee and/or cafe place but don’t see how they could be profitable.

The author establishes an ideal of a “20-minute walk or transit ride” to meet your daily needs.”  He cites other sources putting the willingness to walk at “a quarter-mile to a bus stop or a half-mile to a rail station.”(p. 175)

He cites Steve Mouzon, the author of a blog, Original Green, who came up with the concept of “Walk Appeal” to describe how attractive a setting is and how pretty and interesting places make walking more enjoyable. Compare to walking across a parking lot in hot weather for example.

The author does point out that many things are nicer and more walkable for it, but no one is going to walk a mile to price a television at another location. The purpose of the trip has to be considered.

Dublin, Ohio

I am going to end with Chapter 19 even though there are more tips that follow. This chapter was a delight and surprise to me because it is devoted to Dublin, Ohio and I used to live there and loved it. They had implemented some fantastic rules that made me feel less stressed driving down the roads. It took me a few weeks of living there before I figured out why the drives didn’t jangle my nerves.

Berms were the answer. All the parking lots for companies lining the streets were blocked by high berms of grass. Many intersections had a pond, some with fountains in the middle blowing up sprays of water and enlivening the corners of otherwise tedious asphalt. Places that didn’t choose to have the grassy berms could plant shrubs that often had bright red leaves in the fall or were evergreen hedges.

The difference between Dublin streets and others really has to be experienced to be believed. I now hate the jangle that comes traversing streets with lots of crowded jumbled cacophony of the various shapes, sizes, and colors of vehicles. Probably because when driving your brain is trained to be on the lookout for cars, so the parking lots create a low buzz of distraction and concern. Please note, when I talk about my Dublin, I mean the part in a circle to the left of the river on a map. The right side was a massive strip mall times 10. Maybe it is better now though since the city council took action to bring it up to the 21st century.

Anyway, it was a wonderful place to live. A large park was about 1 mile away from my multi-family apartment complex turned into condos. Two large grocery stores were next door and 1/8 a mile away. They built a fabulous new much-needed hospital adjacent to the further grocery store, just off the highway that bordered my section of town. The library was under 2 miles away.

Great local restaurants that would be walkable for many (not me). Including several right next door to the grocery store a stone’s throw from my building. But you would never know it was there. Not a lot of noise considering. A lovely recreation center also about a mile away, between park and library. Oh, and the Columbus Zoo was a few miles up the river too.

There was a charming small waterfall and trail near the library and river. Another park about 2 miles away had a relocated pioneer cabin next to a wildlife reserve. Dublin, Ohio, was fabulous and sounds like they are working to make it even better based on this chapter.

Taxes buy good things (depending on who does the city budget)

Dublin is notable as the wealthiest suburb in Ohio, and I can see why having lived there and experienced what that meant. Among other reasons why it could be so fabulous: We had a 1% income tax for residents. The article in Wikipedia or cited by the book said that the average median income in Dublin, Ohio, was about $127,000. Yes, that makes it an affluent community. Between property tax and the income tax, the city had the funds to provide nice things for all to enjoy.

That’s the lesson to be learned here. Taxes are required to make nice cities. If my city could be more like Dublin, Ohio, I would happily pay 1% income tax. Unfortunately, someone recently told me that Minnesota State law forbids municipalities from implementing a local income tax.

Laws and the Special Interests Who Write Them

State law also preemptively denies the right for localities to implement rent control or stabilization. There is also a somewhat ambiguously phrased prohibition on localities being able to implement any development requirements or regulations that would be “more restrictive” — I am not sure what the more refers too, but I have been told that would prevent implementation of an accessibility or universal design requirement for all new developments. I think that is wrong and plan to pursue a change on each and everything I don’t agree with that I think the real estate and developers got made into law for their personal benefit.

Equal Access and Fair Housing Does Not Exist for Many

Especially universal design. That is not restrictive at all; UD is expansive! Right now there are very few homes I could rent or own (thankfully I got lucky to find what I have) if I were looking today. It boggles my mind that since 99% of the available housing will only work for able-bodied people, how is that considered reasonable? It prohibits aging in place as well as eliminating “visitability” for people with disabilities who can’t manage steps to visit friends and family.

This book, like 99% of urban planning books out there, never once addresses people with disabilities. There was a bit on aging in place (or the lack of the housing to do so). He cites the increased isolation of the elderly who can no longer drive and that is a HUGE issue. But no one is actually doing a damn thing about that! Or affordable (the real kind, based on minimum wage, not 80% of average median income; in Dublin that would be over $100,000! At 30% affordability in Dublin would be about $38,000 maybe. Public math is dangerous to venture).

There needs to be a unified community spirit for the shared benefit and the common good before we can have nice things. Unfortunately, the previous 3 or 4 decades have driven out any smidgeon of altruism that may have existed, and people are generally inclined to keep every penny they have because they know they will need every penny to survive.

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