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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

City sustainability is about the environment, even when it isn't

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 25, 2013

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  little free library, Memphis (by: Memphis CVB, creative commons)

I teach a law school seminar in regional and community sustainability and, in each of the last two weeks, a student has wondered why I was including in our curriculum subjects such as home affordability and cultural preservation.  “What does this have to do with sustainability?” he asked.  He wasn’t being obnoxious, just curious. 

And my answer, then and now, is this:  just about everything.

In order to have any chance at environmental sustainability, we need strong cities and walkable suburbs.  They enable living patterns that save energy, reduce automobile dependence and tailpipe emissions, slow the spread of pavement across watersheds, and conserve land, compared to spread-out suburbs.  But, for cities to serve this function, they need to work for people.  And I mean people of all sorts in an increasingly diversifying population, not just creative-class MIllennials with no school-age kids and well-to-do Baby Boomers moving back downtown.

Unfortunately, for many decades inner cities didn’t work very well for people with choices about where to live.  As a result, entire neighborhoods were abandoned as people moved out to (for a brief time, literally) greener pastures.  Or so they believed.  The resulting disinvestment of our inner cities was a tragedy from which we as a nation have yet to recover fully.  Even in my city of Washington, DC, thought to be booming, we’re only at about four-fifths of our peak population in the 1950s.  vacant building, Cincinnati (courtesy of Joe Brinker and Steve Dorst)Disinvestment would have been a tragedy even without the accompanying sprawl, which has caused so much environmental damage.  We have yet to recover from that, too.

Sustainability isn’t just about numbers, and it isn’t always explicitly about “the environment,” by which most of us mean issues related to pollution and resource consumption.  If our urban solutions don’t work for people – if we don’t make cities wonderful places to live, work, and play – they will never sustain enough favor to work for the planet.

This is why perceptions about crime – although inner cities are much safer now than, say, twenty years ago, reputations persist – are an environmental issue.  This is why urban public schools are an environmental issue.  Affordability, too:  cities need schoolteachers, public safety officers and mechanics every bit as much as lawyers and doctors.  [Insert lawyer joke here; I can take it.]

And this is why, while most of my colleagues in the environmental community concentrate their efforts on regulation of pollution, standards for carbon emissions, protection of rural land from excessive resource extraction, and the like – and, trust me, we are better off for their efforts – I remain steadfast in my promotion of thoughtful placemaking, of places of peaceful respite amidst urban density, of such “mushy” concerns as lovable buildings and legacy.  Because we need cities to be attractive and strong, these are all environmental issues.

Earlier this week I wrote about (Park)ing Day, when citizens take over metered parking spaces for a day and convert them into miniature public spaces.  Park(ing) Day doesn’t do much directly for the environment, in my opinion:  someone sitting in a kayak on a faux river where a parking space normally exists is frivolous, even silly, as is someone plopped down lengthwise on a few feet of artificial turf in a parking space.   (Some Park(ing) Day exhibits are more explicitly environmental.)  But that doesn’t matter to me.  These little projects animate the street and engage the citizenry in their cities.  That helps make cities more fun and enjoyable.

  playground, Vancouver (by: Kennedy Goodkey, creative commons)

More earnest, perhaps, is the wonderful effort of former mayor Rick Baker to put a playground within a half-mile of every child in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Playgrounds don’t do anything directly to reduce pollution or resource consumption, either.  But they make cities more attractive and viable for kids and their parents.  And that is a very big deal indeed for reviving cities as places for families to live.

Which brings me to a budding community-building effort that is as brilliant in its simplicity as in its appeal:  free, informal sidewalk libraries.  The idea is to create an accessible public spot, stock it with used books, and allow people to take them and leave books for others.  I first heard of the idea last year when researching a story about an innovative bus stop in Paris.

It’s a practice that is catching on, writes Robert Samuels in The Washington Post.  Samuels describes a sort of oversized mailbox with a glass door outside Philip Vahab’s home in DC:

“The box is stuffed with paperbacks from Dean Koontz and Don DeLillo, free for the taking.  Borrowers can return them — if they want — or trade them for a different book.  At first blush, it might seem quaint.  But the book house is a part of a burgeoning global literary movement just now taking root in the region.

little free library, Tacoma WA (by: Bookus Binder, creative commons)“The ‘Little Free Library’ concept started four years ago in the Midwest, when an entrepreneur named Todd Bol watched his neighbors gobble up books placed outside his home.  Back then, he dreamed that 2,500 similar libraries would be constructed by 2014.  He was naive.  There are already more than 10,000.

“Those who have used the book houses say they offer simple joys:  the thrill of an unexpected find, the abandonment of Dewey-Decimal stodginess and — most of all — the creation of a new community space.”

I began today’s article with the idea of writing only about the little free libraries – what a great idea – but then realized there was a larger issue behind it:  Making cities better is good for the environment.  Even (maybe especially) when it isn’t obviously so.  As much as anything, that’s what this blog is about.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Kaid’s new book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, will be published in January 2014.

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Julie RosenzweigSep 27 2013 12:32 AM

A library is a place, not a box.

As a former librarian, I have noted with dismay the hype that these little prettified used-book bins have been generating. I have been wondering in what way they may be considered to be community "spaces," and whether they aren't simply helping people forget what a real library is about, and making it less likely that funding will be generated, maintained or increased for real libraries in the areas where they have been cropping up.

Libraries are civic amenities that offer a mix of uses; they are not mere platforms for the single use of a second-hand book exchange. Really these "Little Free Libraries" have appropriated the term "library" illegitimately; surely a more appropriate and equally engaging designation could be found for them. How about "Little Free Book Bins?"

The Little Free Library is like a computer-screen icon or caricature of a library. Note the emphasis on "free" -- real libraries cost money. However, real libraries also provide actual services to the public, in all kinds of weather. They maintain collections that have been carefully developed by trained librarians to reflect the needs of local users; they provide a whole range of services such as story hours, homework help and job-search assistance; they offer space for cultural events such as book talks and lectures, as well as formal and informal meeting-places for local residents -- all in climate-controlled conditions. Libraries are third places -- with benefits.

I am an admirer of Kaid Benfield and that is why I find it particularly disappointing that he chose to include a quote here by Robert Samuels of the Washington Post that re-hashes the awful Dewey Decimal "stodginess" cliche. Can't we move beyond these stereotypes? Libraries with real collections need classification systems to ensure that items on the same topic are housed together on the same shelf -- I wouldn't call that stodgy, I'd call it efficient. I suppose the Little Free Libraries should be admired for dispensing with yet another stodgy amenity of yore -- the bespectacled spinster librarian with her hair done up in a bun. In reality, librarians are trained professionals who come in all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, marital statuses and levels of visual acuity. What they do have in common is training that enables them to analyze and meet user needs, run programming for different populations groups and age levels, and maintain varied collections of material in print, audiovisual and electronic formats.

Unfortunately, real libraries -- and the librarians who operate them -- do not come for "free."

dawn bazelySep 27 2013 10:52 PM

A fabulous critique by Julie Rosenzweig. I agree - what's with the dewey decimal hating? Seems to me that another equally valid view of these little free libraries or whatever they are being called, is that this is a bit of a half baked idea from people to justify the lack of taxes that support properly run local libraries!
I find it rather weird that this "entrepreneur" (of what?) Mr. Bol watched his neighbours "gobble up books" -in my part of the world, there are always loads of schlocky paperbacks for the taking after garage sales... People, this North America, not Liberia (where they apparently don;t have any libraries) - this story about Mr. Bol makes it sounds like books are terribly rare and pricey in the USA.
I have been puzzled by the kickstarter campaigns to build these little house things - you can do it for $1 worth of nails and some scrounged wood. A bemused public library supporter....

PerspicillataOct 3 2013 04:03 PM

I love the idea of the "little free library" (and I love real libraries too). In practice, though, they seem to be stuffed with an uncurated selection of boring books that no one wants to read. The books that have a higher value tend to go to the secondhand shops.

What do we do about that? Similarly, in one university I visited, they had put in beautiful, modernist furniture - but it was not treated with respect and soon covered in coffee stains and old used gum. Where does this lack of respect come from? Is it innate? Is it a product of all of our riches in the west? What can be done?

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