The essay, "The Social Functions of NIMBYism
" from the Harvard Design Magazine
is making the rounds. A person on the urbanists list made this point:Does anyone else think this NIMBYism essay is a little dismissive? Isn't destroying someone's view or adding a skyscraper to a low-riseneighborhood legitimate reason for concern? Couldn't NIMBYism be thefallout from inadequate zoning or social policy?
If I get a phd in planning, one of my thoughts for a dissertation topic is rearticulating the profession around civic engagement, because land use issues are most likely to engage the average or typical citizen in local civic affairs.
But the issue then becomes why isn't civic engagement "working" now?
After all, as a result of the mistakes of urban renewal and the success of the anti-freeway and environmental movements, we have mandatory historic preservation and environmental reviews for undertakings involving federal funds. Many states and localities have comparable requirements. These processes require citizen involvement and participation. So shouldn't the ability to weigh in make the processes work?
It's pretty clear why things aren't working. Our methods of participatory and representative democracy are somewhat broken. (cf. _Empowered Participation_ by Fung, _Deepening Democracy_ by Wright and Fung, work by John Friedmann, etc.)
And a focus on computer-based participation systems and hired participation firms (such as America Speaks, an organization whose approach I really detest) provides the opportunity for greater participation, seemingly, but at a great cost--the loss of depth and substance in favor of glib "consultations" and "listening sessions" and "town meetings" and numbers of participants. More people participate sure, but there is little substance.
Many DC initiatives such as Mayor Williams' town meetings and the Office of Planning Strategic Neighborhood Action Plans get great write ups in the academic literature, but I think the reality of these processes was ignored while the writers were enamored with the processes and the intention, rather than the quality of the process and the outcomes.
There is an amazing book that teaches English as a Second Language by teaching about how to be involved in your community. When poking through it I thought (1) it sure would be a hard book for non-native speakers to deal with because of the level at which it is written and (2) we aren't doing this for everybody else anyway and we should.Textbook that teaches English as a Second Language, Communicating Effectively in English (1992), by Patricia A. Porter and Margaret Grant, then of San Francisco State University.
High school government courses should be also about learning about how to be engaged in our community, not just how a bill becomes law and the idealized version, not the reality of that unseemly and often dirty process.
THEN, combine broken democracy and civic engagement processes with the fact that for the most part people don't know the very basic foundations of what makes great places (choose your references, from _The City_ by Whyte, to Jane Jacobs, to the _Urban Design Compendium_ by English Partnerships to _Creating a Vibrant City Center_ by Cy Paumier to the essay on creating a walkable community by Dan Burden, and just about all of the work of the Project for Public Spaces, and of course, the absolutely stellar book, probably the best planning book since _Death and Life_, _Cities in Full_ by Steve Belmont), and the ideas behind the transect which helps structure decision-making on what building types are appropriate or inappropriate depending on the place.
(The transect is a key and important tool.)From Scott Doyon--Re: the depiction of urban environments in media directed at children, my six year old daughter recently brought home a book from her school library called The House Book by Keith DuQuette. Included in it, following a lot of nice traditional home illustrations, was the attached depiction of city to country. It's so good for what it is, I was surprised it didn't have a DPZ credit at the border. My daughter understood it immediately. There is hope.Suburban style developments in the core of the city of Washington, DC are a "transect violation." It's inappropriate to place car fronted buildings on urban streets in the core of center cities. Flickr photo by Inked78.
And that municipal government planning initiatives don't spend much time on the foundations, and they don't rank or order different objectives.
About 4 years ago, I commented to the then Ward transportation planner "why is it that with each planning iteration that citizens are involved in, our knowledge base, ways of participating, and outcomes don't improve?" I avered it was because of our not teaching best practices and principles and spending more time on developing quality process.
I pushed to have PPS
and their place game/How to Turn A Place Around workshop used in the next iteration. I pushed hard, and they were included, by their efforts were crushed by the constraints put on by the Dept. of Transportation and they never did their normal citizen participation process.
Plus, municipal planning issues fail to lay out broad citywide objectives and work to make sure that these objectives are met in complementary and reciprocal ways when engaged in _neighborhood_ planning efforts.
And residents tend to be very focused on neighborhoods, what I often call "the tyranny of neighborhood parochialism."
Combine this with a lack of knowledge (especially on urban vs. suburban planning principles and design paradigms), broken civic engagement models, constrained planning processes, not to mention what can be over influence by certain interest groups and self-dealing, and yes, planning and land use and zoning and change or more importantly, transformation, becomes very difficult if not impossible.
A month or two ago, a blogger in DC asked for some references on how to promote transit oriented development. I responded that you can start promoting TOD by not using the term TOD, that what really matters to people is the qualities that support livability and great neighborhoods. Now it's easy, using that framework, to explain why TOD makes sense:
- better use of land
- in such a way that it reduces automobile trips significantly
- providing more ridership to transit allowing greater frequency of service
- provides more residents able to support neighborhood retail and other neighobrhood-based programs and services (including schools)
- adds property tax revenues to strapped municipal coffers
- and in the case of DC also adds income tax revenue
- and provides the opportunity to deliver a greater diversity of housing types able to meet the shelter needs of a greater diversity of people, types of households, and at a variety of income levels.
You don't have to use TOD as a term at all. And that's good, because too often people equate TOD with inappropriate density increases and riches for developers, and it becomes very difficult to discuss why TOD makes so much sense.
NiMBYism is in part of fear of change.
It should also be seen as an indicator of the failure of the planning profession (as well as the executive and legislative branches of government) to do its job properly within the context of a damaged polity with broken participation practices.
Note that another problem is that well-educated people, the kind of people who tend to have the time and interest enabling their involvement in land use planning issues, think they know everything already. I am learning, doing some facilitation here and there, in various neighborhood planning exercises, that it is very very very difficult to get people to sit back, consider and ponder. They want deliverables and they want them now. But incomplete consideration of issues can be a real problem, especially when planning initiatives and new projects end up being a once every 20+ year phenomenon.
That being said, I think that the planning principles document
created by citizens in the West End area, a visioning exercise conducted by the Foggy Bottom Association and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (with support of their local ANCs and the DC Library Renaissance Project) is pretty good. (Maybe because I led the sessions, maybe not. I did learn that I have a long way to go before I would call myself a good facilitator.)
Lately I have been mentioning in testimonies that the point of planning and zoning is to make better communities, to extend the livability of the city. So if the processes aren't yielding those kinds of outcomes, then we need to look inward as much as we look outward, to see why planning and zoning and development isn't making our communities better when it isn't, and why it succeeds when it does so, and then work to replicate and extend the successes.
Labels: civic engagement, urban design/placemaking