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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Some end-of-year tributes - raise a glass of nog or grog to three good ones

Kaid Benfield

Posted December 21, 2007 in Living Sustainably

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I was going to post something about “green sprawl,” but ya know, it’s the holidays, Kaid, and don’t be so frikkin’ negative, OK?

So here’s what I’ll do instead:  I’m going to pay tribute to some inspiring leaders in this field of better land use. 

Seaside, in FloridaFirst, Time.com has a great story up (I hope it will also be in the print edition) on green neighborhoods, essentially laying out the principles that led NRDC and its partners to create LEED for Neighborhood Development.  It actually does make some good points about “green sprawl,” without quite using the phrase but, better, it features one of my heroes, Andres Duany, new urbanist extraordinaire, and his ideas for how we can build better.

As the article notes, Andres’s antidote to the health, social, and environmental costs of sprawl is to build neighborhoods like Florida’s Seaside and Maryland’s Kentlands, where “houses are more human-sized, in part because the designs create vibrant, walkable public spaces, where people can eat, work and have fun.” There were two people (well, three counting my colleague David Goldstein, but my tribute to David is for another day) who were huge inspirations to my entry into this field, two visionary architect/planners who unwittingly launched me into what eventually became the smart growth movement. 

Kentlands, in MarylandOne was Andres, when I read about what he had done in Seaside in, I think, The Atlantic.  I was impressed and intrigued.  Now, I’m fortunate that we know each other and I can learn from him directly.  I don’t always agree, by the way:  we differ on whether a new urbanist community design in an exurban context can be a net positive for the environment.  But Andres really, really gets the big picture, and he’s a crusader, out there in the public eye a lot, and both my career and the world are better for it.  Read the Time piece for a slice of his philosophy. 

The second was Peter Calthorpe, Andres’s co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, whose book The Next American Metropolis literally changed my life.  With a lot of help from my friend Shelley Poticha, Peter’s book made the case for better neighborhood location and design not only on human grounds but also on solid environmental data.  And he practically invented the concept of transit-oriented development.   I wasn’t looking for the book, and I wasn’t even in the field yet.  I was just browsing the architecture section of a bookstore, and thought it looked interesting. 

The Crossings, Mountain View, CABy the time I had finished, I realized that we had answers to sprawl that gave people all the things they have been seeking in the suburbs, but in a form that could both be beautifully attractive and help rather than hurt the environment.  Peter has backed that up with some outstanding plans and community designs, such as the one pictured here, for The Crossings, in Mountain View, California.  I’ve devoted my career to this stuff ever since and, years later, I was honored that both Peter and Andres were kind enough to lend their supportive words to the cover of NRDC’s book, Solving Sprawl.   And, speaking of Shelley, her current organization, Reconnecting America, has a nice interview with Peter discussing transit-oriented development on its website. 

My third and final tribute must go to my close friend, Don Chen, who has headed our national coalition Smart Growth America ever since its founding way back in the 20th century.  It just about kills me that he has decided to leave the coalition, but I can hardly blame him for moving to one of the best jobs in this field, heading up the Ford Foundation’s program supporting community development. 

Don's the man to see on smart growthDon and I have strategized together, lobbied together, fought each other over minutiae, watched sports and talked music and cycling together, written a book together, and frankly done just about everything enjoyable that colleagues can do with each other.  We have accomplished some things, too.   Don may be the single most optimistic person I’ve ever met, as well as one of the brightest and most dedicated.  Those qualities have served our cause immensely well and, I hope, will continue to do so in his new position.  He’s leaving SGA in great shape for the future, and I know he must be incredibly proud of that.  Ford is getting a good one.  But I still want him to change his mind and stay! 

Speaking of leaving, that is what I am going to do to this blog until 2008.  See ya in a couple weeks.  Until then, to all a good night - and holiday!

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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