Long, onerous environmental review processes focused on public input can cause major delays and cost increases for infrastructure and transportation projects.
Pointing to New York City's congestion pricing project as an example of a proposal delayed by community engagement, Jake Blumgart describes the pitfalls of drawn-out environmental review processes that can delay or kill infrastructure projects. "Everything from individual housing projects to bike lanes to major new infrastructure like subway lines is subject to rigorous community engagement programs."
"You might say it's good to be careful about public policies," says Katherine Levine Einstein, professor of political science at Boston University. "The problem is when we delay things, we make them super expensive and it has real environmental consequences." Einstein and her colleagues "conducted research around participation in community meetings about housing and zoning" in the Boston metropolitan area. They found that participants "were more likely to be white, even in areas with small white populations, and they were even more likely to be older than the average resident and far more likely to be homeowners." According to Einstein, "meetings about infrastructure and transportation projects are likely to have similarly distorted results as those about housing and zoning."
To Einstein, outdated environmental review requirements "don’t take into account the overwhelming urgency of addressing climate change and the huge role that a car-centric development and policy have played in warming the planet." Designed to evaluate the impacts of projects to protect the environment and public health, "California’s Environmental Quality Act," for example, "has been weaponized by white homeowners to delay neighboring development to death."
While "innovations in public outreach during the pandemic may have reshaped some of the inequities of public engagement," according to Einstein's research, "Zoom and webinars have not changed who attends public meetings, at least in the case of Boston metropolitan area zoning meetings." Meanwhile, due to the 16-month environmental review process for New York's congestion pricing, badly needed funds for transit upgrades won't start flowing until 2023.
"There is not an easy answer to the question of how to balance community input against the cost of delay, especially as the need to fight climate change becomes ever more imperative." Einstein recommends reforms that could make public meetings more efficient without sacrificing community input, "such as focus groups for only renters or transit-dependent people" and increased accountability for local politicians. But Einstein isn't optimistic. "[F]undamentally, by their structure, public meetings will always attract an unrepresentative group of people with intense preferences."
The Top Urban Planning Books of 2022
An annual list of the must-read books related to urban planning and its intersecting fields.
How Urban Trees Save Lives
New research shows a strong connection between a healthy urban tree canopy and lowered mortality rates.
How To End Homelessness: The Houston Model
While the numbers of unhoused people in other major U.S. cities grow, Houston has managed to effectively end veteran homelessness and house more than 26,000 people since implementing a ‘Housing First’ approach a decade ago.
New York MTA Releases Plan for Improved Accessibility
The MTA announced plans for new or improved elevators at almost two dozen stations as part of its pledge to make more of its stations fully accessible.
The Best, Worst, and Most Questionable in 2022 Architecture and Design
A list of innovative projects, intriguing design, and flummoxing failures.
Los Angeles To Phase Out Oil Drilling
The city has banned new wells and will end all extraction within two decades.
Chaddick Institute at DePaul University
HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research
City of Dallas
American Planning Association, Sustainable Communities Division
California High-Speed Rail Authority (Authority)
This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.