On the ecology of people habitat and first experience of cities...

This book was born from my imagined impressions of cities before I actually experienced them, from my measure of cities against that imagination, and from my imagination yet again, as I consider how real cities might reach our best aspirations for them as habitat for people.


I owe the title People Habitat to my friend Trisha White, an expert on the interactions between the built environment and wildlife. Trisha believes wildlife does best when nature’s critters have a realm that is primarily their own, and when we humans have the same – a “people habitat” distinct from places where wildlife is primary and we are secondary. I thought Trisha captured a lot in that simple phrase, which I first heard at a meeting and never forgot.


People “habitat” borrows a word from the field of wildlife ecology but evokes a different sort of ecology, one centered on humans.


Nature works best when it is in balance, and that leads me to a guiding principle: like the natural environment when operating at its best, the built environment created by us humans should achieve harmony among its various parts and with the larger world upon which it depends.


A second guiding principle is that, while the ecology of the natural world concerns itself primarily with the interdependence of species and the health of ecosystems, the ecology of people habitat concerns itself also with our relationships as humans to each other, and with the health of communities that support those relationships and allow us to flourish.


Thinking spatially, wildlife habitat may be conceived as a realm that starts in a nest or den and extends outward from there. In my mind, people habitat is similar: our domain begins in our homes but also extends outward, to our neighborhoods, our cities or towns, and even to the regions beyond, which I discuss in the first chapter.  I believe we humans have an opportunity and a duty to make our habitat work both for us as people and for the sustainable health of the planet writ large.


As a kid living with working-class parents in a small, sleepy southern city, I mostly imagined – rather than experienced – larger American cities of consequence, or historic cities abroad.  I was in my late 30s before I could afford a trip out of the country, and I am quite sure I did not even know there was such a thing as urban planning until almost as late in life.  My parents had tons of smarts and great instincts, but no higher education, and I was pretty much on my own for finding my way into college, then law school, and eventually a profession.  I made it up as I went along.  I still am.


My hometown of Asheville, North Carolina was hardly without its merits, most of all its location smack in the middle of the majestic southern Appalachian Mountains, with the Blue Ridge to the east and the Great Smokies to the west. We could get to a mountaintop picnic area or trail faster than I can now get to work, and I loved it (while taking my unique natural surroundings for granted, of course, as kids are wont to do). When not exploring nature, chances are I was playing tennis, teaching myself guitar, or spending time with various church youth groups, because that’s what many of us did in that time and place.


We did have a smallish downtown, though, and instinctively that’s where I wanted to be on a Saturday, if I wasn’t doing one of those other things.  When I was around the age when Chuck took his photos, I would hop on the city bus, take myself downtown, and hang out.  I loved the city library, the tiny downtown park and larger main square, the Woolworth’s, the movie theater, the music store.  Especially the library and music store.  Downtown, sleepy though it was, seemed like a place where things happened, where grownups more important than me did . . . what, exactly?  If I considered that part at all, it was with my imagination.


I suppose that, most of all, downtown Asheville was a place with some liveliness:  people shopping, selling, eating out, going to movies, or whatever.  As a de facto only child (I wasn’t, technically, but that’s perhaps a story for a different kind of book) of two working parents, I was alone a lot of the time, well before the phrase “latchkey kid” entered the lexicon; hanging out in a place with a bit of life mitigated that problem.


So, in my own way, I had stumbled upon some of the amenities that even small-city downtowns, if they are good ones, can provide: animation; a variety of activities close at hand; the possibility of a chance encounter with a friend or interesting stranger. Asheville also had, and still has, lovely residential neighborhoods – many with spectacular views, because the city contains real (if small) mountains within its borders. But I went to the residential areas to see friends or attend planned events; I didn’t go just to go, as I did with respect to downtown.


I’m still making my own way, really, just as I did as a kid in the South over four decades ago. I learned from my curiosity, and from a sense that life (and place) could be better. I suspect that many readers are on that same quest to make cities better . . .

Excerpted from Prologue: Cities of the Imagination