The Consequences of Community Engagement

Long, onerous environmental review processes focused on public input can cause major delays and cost increases for infrastructure and transportation projects.

September 9, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Public Meeting Speaker

NRCgov / Flickr

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To Einstein, outdated environmental review requirements "don’t take into account the overwhelming urgency of addressing climate change and the huge role that a car-centric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."

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