Episode 7: People Habitat

I’ve been a fan of Kaid Benfield’s writing for years, so I was incredibly excited when he agreed to be interviewed on Remarkable Objects.

I was first introduced to his work as a reader of “Switchboard,” the blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. His posts stood out to me because of their conversational tone, and the knack he has for distilling ideas down to their most essential and persuasive parts. A lot of writing about design and sustainability can get really abstract and academic, but Kaid’s never did.

His writing is all about making places that work for people and nature. One thing I always loved about his articles was that they include specific examples of how cities and towns do and don’t function from the perspective of people and the environment.

According to Kaid, cities need nature, and nature needs cities. It’s not one or the other; it’s both.

Listen to the episode in iTunesSoundCloud, or Google Play.

Thanks for listening.


Leda Marritz | Creative Director, DeepRoot

P.S.: Kaid wrote over a thousand posts in his time with NRDC. He’s also written a number of books (the most recent is called “People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think about Greener, Healthier Cities” – check out that five-star rating).


TRANSCRIPT: People Habitat
GUEST: Kaid Benfield (Placemakers, LLC)


I know it’s mushy to talk about places that are lovable, but I think it’s really important to sustainability, because it’s the places that we love that are going to last. It doesn’t do any good to have a place that’s theoretically sustainable if we don’t maintain it. That’s not practicing sustainability. Sustainability is creating something that we love and that we fight for and defend, and that we come to cherish over time. That lovability becomes a key component of sustainability.

I’m Kaid Benfield, and I am senior counsel at the planning firm Placemakers.

I’m Leda Marritz, and this is Remarkable Objects, a podcast from DeepRoot about the intersection of nature and the urban environment.

I’ve been following Kaid Benfield’s writing for years. I was first introduced to it as a reader of “Switchboard,” the blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC. His posts stood out for their conversational tone. Kaid has a way of distilling ideas down to their most essential and persuasive parts. His writing is full of specific examples of how cities and towns were (or, in some cases, weren’t) functioning from the perspective of people and the environment.

Kaid worked at NRDC for over 30 years. He started his career as a litigator, and eventually went on to direct the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program, and to co-found the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, as well as Smart Growth America. During this time, he wrote over a thousand posts about land planning, sustainable development, and creating places that work for people. His most recent book is called People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

In Kaid’s view, cities and nature need each other in equal measure. They are both essential to our goal of creating thriving urban places and protected natural habitats.

Let’s start with why nature needs cities. I think that in order to preserve ecosystems and rural lands outside of cities, we need to cluster human settlements, and these human settlements when we do them the right way are cities – when we do them the wrong way they’re suburban sprawl. Few things have been as bad for the environment over the last several decades as suburban sprawl, which as fragmented the countryside at the same time that’s its disinvested in inner cities, and caused us to drive longer and longer distances and put carbon emissions through the roof.

When we do the opposite of that, and develop in a more urban way, things work more efficiently and the nature outside of cities can be better preserved. So cities are very useful to nature.

At the same time, I think it’s really important that we have nature within cities. Cities need nature in order for them to function well because cities are nested within their own ecosystems. And we need nature both to provide benefits to the people who are residents of those cities and to provide benefits to the ecosystem – and that could be anything from cheering us up, as nature often does, to making our urban watersheds work better. If I could borrow from the title of my book, we need good people habitat to have good natural habitat outside of people habitat. And good people habitat inside cities involves, I believe very strongly, involves integrating nature.

How does your work at Placemakers incorporate that philosophy?

We work on planning and zoning updates for mostly municipalities, sometimes we work directly for developers, in the US and Canada. There are five of us in the firm, and what we do is we assemble teams of experts to come in and basically help communities make their neighborhoods better, make their metropolitan regions work better.

You know, a lot of zoning codes in the U.S. in particular were established decades ago and have not been updated in a long time. A lot of values have changed since then, we’ve learned a lot since then, and we try to help communities make their legal framework and their planning framework match the goals and aspirations they have for their residents.

What do you mean when you say that many planning frameworks aren’t current with today’s knowledge or values?

Well, a lot of zoning codes, for instance, were established in the era where we were trying to keep factories away from people’s homes. It made a lot of sense when factories were emitting a lot of pollution. But the effect of those codes has been that it separates where people live from the places that they need to go to to shop, to work. And as a result they have to drive long distances to do that, you have a lot of people on the road, that creates traffic congestion and a lot of problems that we don’t want to deal with today. So we want to update those codes in order to make it possible for people to live closer to the things they need to do.

You started your career as a litigator at NRDC. Why did you eventually move away from that role?

I started out managing our program for making the national forest more sustainable, and that involved a lot of litigation, challenging some logging plans that in one case would have tripled the clear cutting on beautiful recreational land. The more I litigated, the more I learned that I wanted to work on addressing problems before they got to the point where we had to litigate, and particularly when I was litigating over public land management and the national forest, and a lot of very special places, it had developed into kind of a holy war between the development interests, the logging interests on one side, and environmental interests on the other side.

When I started working on land use and transportation, it wasn’t so much a holy war as it was trying to solve a very complex puzzle with a lot of moving parts, and it was working on solutions for things. I found that at that point in my career, I’d been a litigator for twenty, twenty-five years, the idea of and working on problems in a way so that they don’t come to litigation but instead so that we reach settlements and agreements prior to litigation, was a really welcome thing to be working on.

What did that change look like for you? How do you transition away from litigation?

The first step was to start working on legislation, how are environmental laws are drafted; the next step after that was to learn how to work with the private sector, to work directly with them to make their activities work better for the environment and the bottom line at the same time.

What was some of the legislation that you worked on?

I worked, for instance, on national transportation legislation and worked directly with congressional staff and congress people on that, as well as with other environmentalists and people in the transportation industry in various ways, worked on the policies and rules that implemented that legislation.

And then over time I started to work directly with developers on, you know, how to green their practices. The work I did with the U.S. Green Building Council, for instance, was very much designed to create incentives for developers to do the right thing and to work with them in crafting the rules so they made sense. That was a very, I almost want to say that it was fun… it wasn’t always fun, because there were some very tough negotiations that were a part of that process, but I think the outcome was something that we’re all proud of.

You talked about getting people to do the right thing. Which I think is really hard sometimes, it seems like it’s human nature to do the thing that makes sense today. What’s your experience around that? What have you found about what does work to persuade people to make better decisions?

I actually think that people for the most part do want to do the right thing, and it’s a matter of understanding what their needs are in order to make that happen, and helping them understand what tools are available for them to make that happen.

One of the terrible mistakes that we made in the latter 20th Century was driving people away from our cities. People fled to the suburbs, or beyond, and abandoned many traditional neighborhoods and even traditional small towns in order to do that, and the result was catastrophic for the environment.

So why did people abandon cities? What was that disinvestment about?

I think it was a lot of reasons, and there wasn’t like any one reason especially, other than perhaps the rise of the automobile in our culture. As people sort of fell in love with the idea of driving to things; remember in the early days they didn’t have the congestion to deal with that they do now. So it wasn’t that unattractive a thing to move outside of town when there was no traffic jam to worry about to get back into town when you needed to… now that’s all changed. So that was one reason.

Another reason is we had let our cities run down, in some ways, we had not given them the sort of investment we needed. Made some terrible mistakes putting freeways through the heart of our cities and bifurcating traditional neighborhoods, a lot of times this was done in poor neighborhoods and African American neighborhoods that were just totally ruined by these superhighways that weren’t designed to help them, but were designed for people to get through them. We didn’t do very well by our cities in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and it wasn’t really until the dawn of the 21st century that I think we had a critical mass of people who said, “Wait a minute, there’s a lot about city living that’s really attractive.” I think that now, that’s all turning around and inner cities are now growing as fast, or in some places faster, than their suburbs.

So, what are some of the places that are doing it right, that are investing in their communities in ways that are environmentally sustainable but also acceptable to developers?

I’ll give you an example close to home. There’s a place not far from my home called the Broad Branch Market. Corner market, at some point a single family home in NW Washington DC, but some decades ago it was converted, and the neighbors loved it. Everyone flocks there. When the owners reached retirement age they put it up for sale. The neighbors became so concerned that they were going to lose their lovable neighborhood asset that they banded together to work with the sellers, to work with the bank, in order to keep the sale open long enough to find a buyer who would maintain it was a market. As a matter of fact, the new buyer didn’t just maintain it, they improved it, and now the market is, you know, flourishing and it’s the community gathering place that it always was. I think it’s a great example of a lovable place that was sustained because it was loved.

You know, the Broad Branch Market is also a good example of how our zoning codes need to be updated, because it would be illegal to build the Broad Branch Market today in a residential neighborhood.

I love that story because these problems can feel so big and diffuse; it’s really easy to think, “I have no role to play in this,” or “what role can I play in this?” and it’s a great example of a way anyone can participate in smart, people-centered growth.

If we look to places in the country that are doing things right, we can see lots of examples from a great transportation plan in Nashville, TN, to all of the wondering land use things that are being done in Portland. In Vancouver, so Vancouver hosted the winter Olympics in 2010, and they built their athlete’s village to green standards. Then after the Olympics were over they converted it into a green private development, and I think it’s still the highest rated green development in the LEED ND, or LEED for Neighborhood Development, system.

Atlanta is an interesting case because it has the absolute worst horrors of suburban sprawl and traffic, and just everything wrong with land use, but I think partially because of that, there’s been some real innovation going on there. There’s a project called the Atlanta Beltline, which is to take an abandoned railroad corridor that’s basically a 22-mile loop that goes around downtown Atlanta, and convert it to a system of trails and parks, and eventually rail transit connecting those neighborhoods, many of which are ready for revitalization in various ways, and can stimulate the building of workforce housing. All these things that were just kind of waiting to happen if someone had the idea to do it. There are a lot of places that are doing great things.

One thing that’s so interesting about watching urban landscapes change is how quickly they affect human behavior. I feel like making a pedestrian plaza or a parklet is akin to, like, creating a watering hole in the forest. Give it a day or two, and creatures (or in our case, people) will just instinctively flock to it.

I think that there is an analogy to be made between our people habitat and our natural habitat. When we study the ecology of natural habitat, we learn that for the ecosystem to be healthy, that its individual pieces need to be healthy and that they need to fit together in a healthy and harmonious way.

And I think while that is absolutely true of nature, I think that’s also true of our people habitat – our neighborhoods, our parks, our shops and services, our schools, our workplaces, our metropolitan regions… need to fit together in a healthy and harmonious way that support a productive and wonderful living experience for those of us who live in them. I think it’s very much an ecosystem and I think you can absolutely look at the effects of people habitat on people and look at the effect of natural habitat on critters and you can make a lot of analogies, because they’re both systems that connect us, and those connections end up being quite important.

You work all over the U.S. and Canada. What are you seeing as far as land-use practices? Are they changing in a positive way?

I think they are. And I think that the comeback of our inner cities in particular over the last couple of decades has been nothing short of astounding. I was in Detroit a month ago, and Detroit was the poster child for urban decay and devastation. No city, no big city in the U.S., was more disinvested than Detroit, and its downtown is coming back in an astounding way. I see this change as so, so amazing. Neighborhoods that were given up for dead, basically, are now becoming the most desirable neighborhoods in their cities.

In Cincinnati, there’s a neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine, wonderful, colorful name because it was founded by German immigrants, close to downtown and full of wonderful, historic architecture, but that was tragically abandoned in the second half of the 20th Century and became… I think at one point it was named as the most crime-ridden place in America. Now it’s becoming a desirable place to live again. Look at the South Bronx in New York City, you can make a similar kind of assessment. I think that no change has been more profound than the comeback of urban life and urban places.

Do you see nature as a form of infrastructure?

I do. It’s an infrastructure in a number of scales. One is that we have our large parks and our large natural systems which may be best realized at the scale of the metropolitan region, say. But then at a much smaller scale we have the neighborhood scale, and I think at both of those scales nature provides every bit of the benefits of other kinds of infrastructure such as streets and sewer systems and electric utilities and other things that we think of as infrastructure in the way that the term is usually used. I think we can say the same thing about nature; when we have nature in our neighborhoods and it’s designed the right way and it fits within our neighborhoods in the right way, I think it very much operates like infrastructure does.

It’s useful to think about nature as infrastructure but I also think it’s important that we not JUST think about nature as infrastructure, because if we take the wonder out of nature, we take the lovability out of nature, I think we’re diminishing it. And it’s really important to me that we continue to have the sorts of nature that nourishes the soul as well as we can understand with our intellect.

Nature connects us with the larger earth, with the larger universe. And that’s a pretty profound thing, and that happens in a way that goes beyond facts and figures.

If you want to read more about Kaid’s work, visit placemakers.com, and check out his books on Amazon. They’re really wonderful.

Remarkable Objects is produced and edited by me, Leda Marritz, with editorial assistance from Aylara Odekova. You can find us online at remarkableobjects.com, and on Twitter @RemarkableShow.

This podcast is a production of DeepRoot Green Infrastructure. DeepRoot provides landscape solutions and technical support services to promote mature tree growth and sustainable stormwater management in the built environment. Find out more at deeproot.com.

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Kai Engel, “Brooks”
Podington Bear, “Serenity,” Love Is Not”


One comment

  1. Thanks for playing the excellent interview with Kaid Benfield. I was interested in his point that nature may be viewed as an infrastructure (and our infrastructures may reflect natural systems as well) and his point about the emotional/aesthetic/love connections we establish with nature. It’s not all simply science. ee cummings noted this in his line:
    “i’d rather learn from one bird how to sing/ than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.”
    An additional point about urban decay and suburban expansion is that taxes play a large part in it. People are smart. If the taxes paid don’t justify the services given they will move to a place with a more balanced relationship. If it were only fear then Bronxville, NY would not be adjacent to the Bronx.

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