Wednesday, October 27

Developing a YIMBY mindset

Suppose you’re a homeowner in a nice, classic inner suburban neighborhood. There’s a little bit of vacant land down the street from you, and rumors are going around that some developers have their eyes on it for new homes. Your neighbors are looking into their legal options for stopping any construction from happening before it’s too late. They ask you to sign a petition they are bringing to city hall. You hadn’t thought much about this issue before, but now the question is sitting right in front of you with a pen and ink. Do you sign it?

You already like where you live – that’s why you chose it – but you wonder why it couldn’t become an even better neighborhood. You want to show solidarity with your neighbors, but there’s a selfish voice in the back of your head saying: maybe I want a few more homes or even a store on my street. It’s true that the residents of these new homes may be criminals, but that’s not very likely. Most people are decent. Maybe you’ll borrow a hedge-trimmer from them, or they might even host a block party in a few years. You could gain some new friends. You realize that it’s far more likely these new neighbors will call the police on someone breaking into your house than actually try to break into your house themselves.

You know the neighborhood coffee shop where you stop in the morning runs on a thin profit margin, and you would hate to see it close down during an economic down cycle. It occurs to you that a few more homes nearby means a few more daily customers. Maybe with more revenue coming in, your shop could justify serving bagels and cream cheese, giving you more breakfast options. Same goes for your friend’s dental practice on the other side of the street. Economically vibrant surroundings benefit you in a number of ways.

Then there's traffic. That’s the big one. The thought of more cars speeding by your home does give you pause, but this is where you have to consider the long-term effects. The residents of these new infill homes will probably drive less than they would if they were forced out the exurbs, meaning less overall congestion. And the more people who move in the more likely this is to be true. Maybe some will even eschew their car altogether. More people also means more political clout to get neighborhood amenities like better transit, traffic calming, a nice playground, whatever it is your neighborhood wants. And there may be a way to influence the design of this new development to reduce the chance that the new people will bring motor vehicles with them.

But what if you are just odd? Everyone else seems to resist more density, not embrace it. Remember, your property values are determined by what some anonymous future buyer wants in a neighborhood, not what you want in a neighborhood. Maybe you should just join the angry crowd at the public hearing, if only to protect your largest financial investment and keep your options open when it's time to move. But here’s the bewildering paradox: for all the resistance, there’s actually a huge latent demand for walkable urban neighborhoods not unlike what yours could become. New neighbors and services are more likely to help then hurt your nest egg.

Everything points to a yes-in-my-backyard response, and you haven't even gotten into the moral heroics of saving the region from sprawl or allowing more people an affordable and accessible place to live (or recognizing property rights, for that matter). These are just your own wishes for seeing your own neighborhood change for the better.


Eric Orozco said...

I like it. Bring the Louis Kahn question to it... What does the neighborhood want to be? Have you stopped imagining what could be...

It gets tricky with infrastructural change though. How do you not kill the hopes but augment them? Always that tricky dance between Jane and Moses. One needs to pave a third way.

I always enjoy your writing, Daniel.

Stephen Smith said...

All very good points, and yet, people consistently make the opposite choice, so there's got to be something you're missing.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks Eric. You're right that not all changes are for the better, and the stakes are higher for the larger-scale projects. I like your way of characterizing the dance between the Jane and Moses.

Stephen. I actually have the same sneaking suspicion that I'm missing something. How could almost everyone be misinterpreting even their own interests? I'll throw out a few possibilities for this that I'm not sure yet I agree with:

1. It's a fairly recent phenomenon that increasing density could improve property values, something driven by an overproduction of exurban homes and shifting preferences. The older narrative of neighborhood decline may still be persisting, leading to an irrationally defensive reaction to any change.

2. People have already sorted themselves out according to the neighborhoods they prefer, so any changes are likely to be perceived as suboptimal to them. You hear this sometimes, like, "If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would have moved there but instead I moved to Meadows." Of course, this isn't always true. Lots of people move to a place that's not already everything they hope it would be, but because they can afford it.

3. I think many people do not believe it is realistic to hope for fewer cars. They assume each person over 16 will come with a car, under any circumstances, and they understandably worry about this. I happen to believe this is a wrong assumption in many cases, but this is also somewhat of a transition in progress.

Simon said...

I've been in this situation a number of times, and the issue for me is always the *type* of development, rather than a simple yes/no.

For me it's always about parking. I live in a place where most residences have no off-street parking, and so car-ownership is low. I like it like this, and see it as a model to be expanded. But developers don't see it the same way - they know that they can sell apartments for more $$$ if they bundle parking with them. For all I know they're forced to bundle parking by some government regulation.

I'm happy for them to build apartments and shopping complexes and whatever in my neighbourhood, but I don't want them to build any parking with them. It's not necessary - the existing residences and shops are already some of the most expensive in the city, despite their lack of parking, so a lack of parking is certainly no barrier to profitability or neighbourhood amenity. Building parking will change the neighbourhood for the worse - it'll bring more cars and more pollution and more noise.

Yes, I want development. I'm happy to be a YIMBY, but I'm a NIMBY when it comes to parking.

LH said...

Daniel, everything you say here is correct, and it needs to be said so that people can say yes to density for self-interested reasons.

But. Never underestimate peoples' unspoken fear of having to share a block with "those people" (whoever "those people" happen to be in your neck of the woods) and of having their kids share a school with the kids of "those people." At least that's what "density" is a code word for around here.

Stephen Smith said...

My answer may be a bit libertarian for your taste, but it goes something like this: democracy is just not as good of a way to aggregate preferences as a free market. Put another way, people spend their money more wisely than they spend their ballots.

Anonymous said...

We have already tried it on the west coast. It really hurt existing neighborhoods. What you are advocating is the prescription for San Fernando Valley style high density sprawl.

In the inner suburbs the code has minimum parking requirements as well as set back requirements, thus in order to densify these neighborhoods, the developer needs to build something that looks like what is described as a Dingbat complex in Los Angeles.

The San Fernando Valley is quite dense generally 6000 to 7000 people per square mile. Much higher than say downtown Portland, Oregon. But it does remarkably poor on metrics of walkable urbanism given this density. Northridge has a walkscore of 58, Woodland Hills 57.

Additionally development is path dependent. In the post war communities the retail was drawn to high traffic areas, generally near thoroughfares and freeways. Galpin Ford is the number one Ford dealer in the country not because they do an unusually good job selling Fords in Van Nuys, but because its trading area is most of Los Angeles and being fairly close to the 405 and 101 means it has a great location.

As long as most people in a neighborhood have access to cars, the linkage between retail and neighborhood breaks down.

In the inner suburb its proximity to freeway and high traffic thoroughfares that determines success of retail much more than the density of housing in any particular neighborhood. This is why intense densification in the San Fernando Valley didn't result in the creation of new walkers paradise.

Part of the reason Ventura County has fairly restrictive growth controls is that its filled with transplants from the San Fernando Valley who moved to get away from the San Fernando Valley.

Low density Ventura style sprawl functions reasonably well and still has its charms. you can drive everywhere, but traffic isn't that bad. High density Manhattan/Brooklyn walkable urbanism has its charms, you can usually find most of what you need in walking distance. High density San Fernando Valley sprawl appeals to no one.


LH said...

Anonymous, I appreciate your comment. It's along the same vein as to why I'm nervous about high-speed rail's viability in other auto-dependent parts of the country: once you get off the train, how do you get around?

Daniel Nairn said...

Anonymous. I agree that density alone does not make a livable place. A diversity of uses, design features to enhance the public space, and connectivity of the transportation system are all as important, if not more so. Not knowing San Fernando Valley, I take your word for it that the increased density while holding back these other essential features of urbanism can even exacerbate the problem.

It still leases a basic question of what to do with this: do you fight the growth and push it elsewhere? Or do you fight the conditions (in this case, minimum parking requirements, excessive set-backs, etc.) that make the growth unpalatable? Although I didn't go into too much detail, I did allude to having some expectations about the design of these new residential buildings:

"And there may be a way to influence the design of this new development to reduce the chance that the new people will bring motor vehicles with them."

Anonymous said...

I pretty much believe in fighting the growth and pushing it elsewhere.

In 1975, the SF Bay Area and Southern California had fairly similar levels of educational attainment. At that time because of the strength and excellence of the local military industrial complex, Los Angeles was probably still at the forefront of leading electronics and avionics research in the country.

Owing to the greater presence of the hippies the SF Bay Area was much more successful implimenting local growth controls, while the LA area was comparatively more libertarian. In terms of results, LA grew more, but SF grew more educated. Higher housing prices in the Bay Area priced out the less skilled. To this day while the City of San Francisco is more dense than the City of Los Angeles, the San Francisco Oakland MSA region is much less dense than the Los Angeles Long Beach MSA.

In terms of educational attainment today, the SF Bay Area is now significantly better educated than Southern California. That is a big change since 1975.

As the suburbs of the bay area aged, they didn't go into relative decline the way the San Fernando Valley did. The Silicon Valley and the San Fernando Valley were built out in roughly the same time frame. But the Silicon Valley has done much better during this time frame. I think the more more restrictive approach toward growth was big contributor to the Silicon Valley's success. High housing prices priced out the poor and that resulted in areas with high densities of very educated people. The ability to find high densities of highly educated work force attracts the employers.

My experience in California is that more a region fights growth the more livable your community remains. The places that accept growth just become a lot less livable. See the San Fernando Valley. One of the things that keeps the SF Bay Area nice is that most of Marin County is owned by the Marin Trust or various public agencies.

Look at the suburbs of the bay area, Carmel, Orinda, San Rafael, Petaluma and Santa Rosa. These places stayed nice because its almost impossible to build new housing near these communities.

The more the region clamps down on growth, that allows the troubled areas to gentrify.

I like neighborhoods with 2500 to 3000 people per mile and I like neighborhoods with greater than 15000 people per square mile (think the city of San Francisco or Lincoln Park in Chicago). But neighborhoods between those areas just kind of suck. They aren't dense enough for mass transit to be real useful but they are dense enough where congestion starts to make getting around by car not very useful either.

If you could plow certain older neighborhoods down so all at once they made the jump from 3000 to 15000 people a mile, I think densification might work. But otherwise I am pretty skeptical.


Daniel Nairn said...

Ed, I think you're pinning too much of the success or failure of a neighborhood on the level of density alone. That's one factor, but there are many other things to take into account. Maybe our East/West coast perspectives change things a little. My father grew up in a suburb in New Jersey that concentrated a good amount of density around the commuter rail to Manhattan. The attractive and vibrant suburban downtown tapered out in density to neighborhoods from there. I think this is a great suburban model that some are trying to bring back through new transit stops and development oriented to it.

The trouble is that some existing neighbors have defined all new development as a negative and will fight it reflexively. This is understandable, because new development for the last fifty years has been auto-oriented (rather than human-oriented). It's hard to erase those communal memories, but there are other design options available. The energy expending fighting could be used for advocating for positive growth.

I'm not saying residents should be acquiescent to developers, but that there should be a "yes" for every "no." Creating a livable place requires as much offense (pushing for good development) as it requires defense (protecting against bad development).

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