books

Book review: Dwellbeing, by Claire Bradbury

A lot of visions of a green lifestyle are rural – off-grid homes, eco-villages, and ‘escaping’ to the countryside. While these are have their place, they’re not an option for everyone. Over half the world lives in cities already, and that percentage is only going to rise in the decades to come. So we need to think creatively about good urban lives, and about “living deeply and joyfully in cities.”

That’s the subject of Claire Bradbury’s book, Dwellbeing: Finding home in the City.

The book looks at a series of different things that make life worthwhile, and applies them to urban contexts. We know that access to nature is important for our mental health and happiness, for example. How do we make more room for nature in cities then, both for biodiversity and for ourselves? Bradbury gives us a whole variety of examples, from South Korea’s approach to forests as therapy, to Singapore’s ‘supertrees’, to London’s city national park plans. As a resident of an airport town, I particularly liked the example of Mexico City abandoning plans for a new airport because “the people would prefer a lake.”

Chapters take a similar approach with food, fitness, active transport, homes and art, each one presenting some principles and theory, and leaving plenty of room for real world stories. Bradbury has interviewed dozens of practitioners around the world, giving the reader extra insights into what it is they are doing and why. There are architects, artists, planners, activists, historians – a tapestry of people invested in urban living and doing it well.

An emerging theme is that of “slowing down a little and living more fully in our immediate neighbourhoods”. I found it fascinating how art and culture, nature and active transport infrastructure can work together to make places more liveable. If we can creates places that we want to linger in rather than rush through, they’re more likely to be healthier and safer, more sustainable, more diverse and and also more beautiful.

Bradbury is a good guide to this whole topic, having grown up in the South African bush, and now living a somewhat nomadic life as a sustainable cities expert. She brings an international perspective to the book that I really enjoyed, as books like this can often prioritise Western cities that are more familiar to us. Bradbury recognises that some of the most exciting developments are in emerging world cities, including many attempts to learn from previous cities and do things better.

Dwellbeing doesn’t contain anything radically new, but what it does do is set out a diverse spread of ideas all in one place. It’s not overly detailed or technical, and that makes it perfect for ordinary citizens to draw inspiration from. That’s what I was hoping for in picking it up, and thinking about what it means for the place that I call home. Because as Bradbury says: “Whether or not our cities get everything right, it is important that we recognise our stake in, and rally for, the places we spend our lives in.”

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