Monday, November 25, 2013

Pitchin' Slate on NIMBYism

There is a good interview with Chicago's [out-going] head of transportation, Gabe Klein, right here.  Klein is a big bike advocate.  And as a reformist inside of city halls, he's familiar with push back against change.  Any change:
In the public sector you have a tremendous amount of resources, and my argument’s always been that the biggest problem in the public sector has been career-level bureaucrats saying “no.” Because it’s easier to say no. It’s safer to say no. Saying “yes” means you might actually have to do some work, and you may have to change something. And to be honest, in big corporations you encounter some of the same stuff.
All of that is 100% true.  What I want to do is take that same argument and apply it to a common problem, dealing with NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard), a pejorative term developers and consultants give to local neighborhood groups that are hostile to whatever they're pitching.  Many on twitter raised the valid point that NIMBYs represent only the irrational fear of change.  However, I worry that we're also lumping rational skepticism into that group and the shouting down of NIMBYism ends up quieting the rational voices.

So what we may be getting into an issue of semantics.

Let's first dig into why there is such a thing as NIMBYs.  As I said, NIMBYs tend to be hostile to development.  Often any and all kinds of change which is where the rational and the irrational NIMBYs get lumped together.  The funny thing is, and this gets to the stream of thought I was exploring this morning on twitter, is that neighborhood groups can actually exert power over development.  However, they generally have little to no power to exert over transportation agencies without Herculean (or Jacobsian?) effort.  We'll get back to that.

Now, if 99% of what you see get built around you is terrible, even at some visceral, subconscious level, it's pretty natural to be skeptical of any new development.  Even when a good developer with a good development comes along, they can get shouted down by an angry mob exerting its one and only remnant form of power.  Some developers slog through the process seeing light and profit at the end of the tunnel suitably worth the effort.  Others don't want to deal with it.  Both reactions are unfortunate.

However, that isn't the root of the problem.  Those developers that want to do high quality, walkable urban development are the extreme minority.  In the previous decade, only 17% of new housing starts in DFW metro area were in infill sites.  Flipping it around, that means 83% of new housing was on the bleeding greenfield edge.  Development form and typology is a direct outgrowth of transportation.

We subsidize and our policy ensures favoring the ever bigger, ever faster road in order to alleviate the congestion bogeyman. Therefore, the majority of development is going to be a direct, car-centric outgrowth resulting in ever lower densities, parking used as a buffer between big bad roads and the human interface of buildings.

Yep, your house was cheaper because of this policy of subsidization and centrifugal inertia and you made the rational financial choice to move there.  And because so many others made the same rational choice, there are better schools there.  Win-win.  You love the cozy insides of your home, but the world around is inhumane.  And you know it.  So you don't want any more of it.  But it's inevitable as long as our transportation policy ensures similar development output, except for that one noble developer.  But how can you know the difference?  All he's showing is renderings.

The reason is neighborhoods are lied to so often that they can't decipher the truth.  I was working with a city's economic development staff once and I was told that with both the city council and the citizens I wasn't allowed to use certain terminology.  The reason?  They had already had every single big name consultant come through town promising things that weren't delivered upon, either by them or their developer pulling a bait and switch between design and implementation.

Why?  Because it was a car-centric place with car-centric transportation infrastructure so that any efforts towards something else were superfluous, costly add-ons and the first to find the cutting room floor during value engineering stage.  What's the point of the sidewalk if there is nowhere to walk to?

Here is the worry:  being too harsh on NIMBYs as a reactionary castigation to any and all skepticism is a cheap design school rhetorical parlor trick.  Because in design school where everything is subjective and only subjective, design is reduced to rhetoric.  It's easier to pander to your professor's biases for grades.  In development, it's easy to pander to neighborhoods and promise things that sound good.  Usually that means more greenery that won't be maintained properly because it is a superfluous add-on rather than an integral outgrowth of good development patterns that start with good policy and transportation infrastructure.

Suggesting people just say yes, is like the argument that a benevolent dictatorship is the ideal form of governance.  Well, it is if it's you and you just want to get your way.  It's short-term-ism and can allow for all sorts of bad development.  We're lucky enough that urban design happens in the court of public opinion.  Therefore, the burden of proof is on the change agents.  Because the renderings with photoshopped people deserve extra scrutiny.  As do the "world-class" object architecture and anything suggesting walkability and sustainability.  Why?  Because they're probably full of it.  The transportation dictates it.

Now if only we can change the underlying transportation policy and infrastructure, where local neighborhoods have no countervailing power or oversight to "improvements."