How Can We Get NIMBYs to Say Yes?

Will Doig reflects on the scourge of public micromanagement that has "essentially become an official part of the urban planning process in many cities," and explores the psychology behind anti-development activism.
May 29, 2012, 2pm PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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As a correction to the disastrous top-down "scientific" urban renewal projects of the middle of the last century, public participation in planning processes became enshrined in cities across the country. While perhaps a worthwhile correction at the time, Doig believes the abusive application of rules providing avenues for private citizens to challenge development have exceeded any theoretical good.

"These rules, designed to check the power of city officials, now perversely consolidate immense power in the hands of a few outspoken 'concerned citizens.' By dragging out the building process indefinitely, these people can make it so expensive that deep-pocketed luxury developers have a better chance of surviving it than anyone actually building affordable housing. Worst of all, these rules have created a new norm in which individual residents just assume that their personal opinions should carry great weight in routine planning decisions."

Doig explores the psychology behind those who resist any plans for change in the hope of revealing how planners might address their concerns.

"Oxford University researcher Toby Ord co-authored a 2006 paper titled "The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics" that helps explain anti-development activism. Status quo bias is an irrational desire for things to stay exactly as they are, even when change would be beneficial. It springs from a variety of factors, from risk aversion to fear of the unknown."

One solution to overcoming this bias may be for planners to develop mitigation measures for perceived negative impacts, rather than asking for approval or disapproval of a particular project. Another solution may simply be to reduce residents' power to oppose. According to Doing, "a few cities are starting to move in that direction. San Francisco has been struggling to reform its discretionary review process to make it less prone to abuse. And at Northeastern University in Boston, new software that could bring the public review process online could both increase transparency and broaden public input beyond just the anti-development gadflies who have time to go to years of public hearings."

Thanks to Daniel Lippman

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Published on Saturday, May 26, 2012 in
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