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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Planning in Your Frontyard

Yards (like this one in Yonkers), as well as stoops and
parks, are places where neighbors come together
Last week, The New York Times ran an engaging article by Emily Badger about community opposition to new projects titled, "How 'Not in My Backyard' Became 'Not in My Neighborhood." It is subtitled, "The expectation that homeowners should be able to reach beyond their property lines has become deeply embedded."

It is a timely article and a discussion that planners need to continue. As many dense urban areas continue to see sustained growth, community resistance to development has become a significant problem. I am not sure Badger's explanation of the problem is entirely correct, though, and it may lead to the wrong conclusions. Wrapping up the article, she says:
We want people to be invested in their neighborhoods, but not to the exclusion of anyone else who might live there, too. We want to empower neighbors to fight a trash dump, but not to halt every housing project the region needs.
Ultimately, we need to find a home for trash dumps, too. I would argue what we need is to empower people to work together to develop plans that are fair and provide improvements for everyone. We want to channel their loud voices into a chorus of optimism rather than shouts of fear.

Badger clearly makes an appeal to balance, but I think the fixation on homeownership may carry her off course. Homeowners have become too focused on their own interests, she seems to argue, to the detriment of others who have not yet found a home. The natural conclusion seems to be reducing the power of self-interested homeowners to better provide for the common good. While I do not doubt there are plenty of examples of selfish constituencies, I am inclined to think what we really have is a process problem.

The article itself shows a touch of ambiguity about the role of homeownership. While most of the text ascribes motives to the financial interests in homes, there is some contradiction:
...as residential mobility rates have declined, [Vicki Been] suggests, Americans are staking even stronger claims to their neighborhoods, with renters now behaving in ways we once associated more with homeowners.
It may seem I am being picky with the difference, since it was the financial investment in a home that kept homeowners rooted to a community while renters could simply move away from problems. Nonetheless, there is a more significant underlying point: what drives opposition is a concern about neighborhood quality of life. Homeowners may in fact feel sensitive to the worsened conditions as a financial impact, but I expect they are generally more upset about how it will affect their daily lives while they are still in their homes. At any rate, any effect on the value of their home is a function of quality of life in the neighborhood as seen by the next set of homeowners, which brings us back around to the same place.

So if the question is really neighborhood quality of life, why are we having problems with such a backlash? Do all these proposed projects really deteriorate neighborhoods so much? There is clearly a sense that projects that serve a public good are being fought bitterly - is urban growth really just a zero sum game? Can we not accommodate new residents without making current residents worse off?

I think the problem is a lack of real planning.

We have a lot of process. There is a lot of public participation, but it repeats over and over without actually forming plans. While indispensable for planning, extensive public participation is disruptive for projects, and unfortunately that is often precisely what we do.

While developing a plan, it is important to engage the community. This exposes differences in what people want in their communities and informs prioritization. In the best cases, a consensus vision can coalesce; otherwise, the deliberations that set strategic direction are at least transparent and lay out shared expectations, even when disagreement remains.

Adopting a plan insulates the individual projects from prolonged process during implementation. With the decisions settled about the key features, developers and other project sponsors can move forward with greater certainty. This reduces a range of costs including design revisions and financial expenses incurred from delays. Given the overarching concern about housing affordability, reducing these costs is important.

A plan can also improve balance and equity in ways that fighting over projects cannot. By subjecting an area to an overarching framework, there is less room for power and influence to manipulate decisions for specific projects. It can also better address negative features (a waste transfer station, for example) by demonstrating how social burdens are shared and mitigating impacts with other positive features more comprehensively than project-level "mitigation" measures.

Finally, progress can be tracked with a plan. People can see if things are improving, and they know what benefits to expect as work continues. In the absence of a plan, each project can seem like a new fight to make small gains or hold onto whatever you have. It can seem never-ending with no sense of collective achievement.

Very often, what we practice as "city planning" is not really planning. Many jurisdictions have instead adopted public process without drafting plans. This is an approach that fosters NIMBYism. Without the overarching framework to ensure fair treatment in spreading impacts and benefits, residents are compelled to face off on every project to fight for their interests. Even those who embrace social equity and are prepared to accept a fair share of impacts must eventually take a stand too, if they are to avoid being exploited by other less progressive (and often more powerful) communities.

In my view, it is not really a matter of reigning in homeowners who are not willing to share with the next generation of neighbors who isn't there yet. We have communities full of people who have friendly discussions in their front yards, on their stoops, and in neighborhood parks. It is an issue of engaging them in developing an actual plan that provides them confidence about how their neighborhood will grow and thrive in a changing city. Perhaps it is because I am a planner, but I see better planning as the solution to our NIMBY backlash.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Under the Roadway - Inspiration from Bethesda Terrace

It seems to be an article of faith among many contemporary planners that grade separation is an
ti-pedestrian and inherently anti-urban. In practice, this has been the case all too often; pedestrians have been forced to use uncomfortable overpasses and underpasses, diverted from a direct route to a grossly inferior detour. It is indeed a miserable experience when you're forced to climb steep stairs to walk across a narrow concrete pad over noisy traffic with a sharp wind cutting through the chain link fence, or to pass through a claustrophobic, musty, tunnel adorned solely by the exposed electrical conduit for the dim lights. Yet when we accept these bad places as our model for grade separation, we forget the concept's original vision and early success. This troubles me again each time I visit Central Park.

The ideas and work of Frederick Law Olmsted set much of the foundation for urban planning. His transverse roads in Central Park continue to successfully overlay a rustic park environment on a busy street grid. They make it possible for an expansive urban park to coexist with the city's street system. This is the baby we should not throw out with the bathwater.

And then there's Bethesda Terrace, the architectural showpiece of the park. It is an amazing progression of space, a place that is experienced by movement through a sequence of spaces. Grade separation here is not some mere functional layout. It is not just a safety feature. The experience of descending, the transition through a dark, constrained space that frames the view of the Angel of the Waters, and the reemergence into the open, sunny space is the design.