Friday, December 5

A modest proposal for NIMBYs

The Not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) phenomenon has been a tough nut to crack for metropolitan regions around the country, particularly when it comes to accommodating the residential growth pressures that most cities face. On the one hand, it's a good thing for folks to take pride in their local neighborhood, feel a sense of civic engagement, and be a part of decisions that have an impact on their quality of life. This is something that should be encouraged. On the other hand, growth pressures are ultimately regional not local. When each neighborhood association challenges densification within their own borders, developers are forced to push out their projects to greenfields on the periphery of the metropolitan area. This has been the modus operandi in cities across the country for the last several decades, but most of us agree that the process is simply not sustainable into the future.

So here's a suggestion that may be too impractical to be an actual proposal - maybe more of a thought experiment - for how we can maintain rigorous citizen engagement with allowing new infill growth ...

When a neighborhood association expresses opposition to a proposed development, they should be asked the question: "If not here, where else should this growth be located?" They should then be required to point to a specific neighborhood on a map of the metropolitan region that has similar transportation access to the city as their own neighborhood. Transportation access should be the only condition, beyond obvious regulatory constraints (you can't point to a flood plain or a contaminated industrial site). This may be harder to measure in cities with a more polycentric form than more traditional cities, but some effort needs to be made for this proposal to make any sense.

Once a commensurate alternative has been selected, the local group opposing the initial development should have to meet with the neighborhood association in their chosen area and explain why the growth would be more appropriate there rather than in their own neighborhood. Face-to-face meetings would be ideal, but a letter could suffice if this is not feasible. If the citizens of the new neighborhood are convinced by the case and agree to accept the growth, the developer would immediately have by-right access to a site in this neighborhood (once again, taking other regulations into consideration). If they decline, the onus would be on the first neighborhood association to either select another location or accept the growth themselves. In fairness to the developer, there needs to be a time-frame to make these arrangements, after which the intial proposed site would have approval.

How would this play out? If anything, it could enhance individual citizen's ownership of their community and help them draw personal connections with other neighborhoods in their city. There may be parts of the city that would welcome new growth but are typically bypassed by developers for whatever reason. Developers would have an incentive take a closer look at these places. Finally, it should take the pressure off the exurban periphery of the city.


Zed said...

You know, given the declining size of our economy, we really should begin to question whether growth is a good and necessary thing to accommodate.

Along similar lines to your second suggestion, perhaps the developers should have to get the agreement of the neighborhood in which they which to conduct their growth enterprise. Even though I would guess this is a rare situation, it would interesting to see how they might approach their own neighbors with a request to change the character of their own neighborhood.

Daniel Nairn said...

Yeah, in a down economy the problem is not as acute, because developers are not going to be proposing new projects in the first place.

I see growth management as a set of sticks and carrots. If its all sticks and a city does whatever it can to fend off growth, two problems arise. Growth gets pushed out to areas were the local governments on the periphery actually want it, and the housing prices in the city go up due to shortage of supply.

If infill becomes easy to develop some of those pressures will be reduced - and something like an urban growth boundary may have a chance of working.

APH said...

As a developer, I would worry about how the site in the other neighborhood is selected.

Would you use condemnation if the similar site in the other neighborhood is approved? And if so, what if another developer already had plans for that site.

Would developers acquire certain sites knowing that NIMBYs will reject the proposal, giving the developer access to a more desirable site he would not otherwise have been able to acquire?

It would set up very peculiar rules to the game of competition among developers, which would likely clog the bureaucratic system and might actually hamper good development.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks, APH. I think you found some genuine problems here. I hadn't considered competition between developers.

But let me respond anyway, in case there is some tweaking that could make sense of this.

The overall goal is to make things easier on infill developers while still allowing for robust public involvement. Hopefully, with these changes, developers would no longer find it necessary to play the kinds of games they've had to play with proposals.

There would be no reason to put forward insincere requests to gain access to some other site, because the ultimate decision for the other site would be up to the citizens there. The developer would be better off just asking for what they actually want ... i think.

As far as other developers having plans, that could just be a condition of approval. If those plans are not formalized in any way then ... sorry. But the same can happen now.

Condemnation sounds a little scary to me. I was thinking in terms of vacant lots of property for sale. Dishing out condemnation like this may not be protection enough. Am I naive in thinking these potential infill sites are available in most urban areas?