What is Community Input For?

Seattle DPD

Reading about last week’s low-rise zoning public meeting is enough to lose your faith in humanity, but it’s worth thinking about what the purpose of community input is. As usual, Matt Yglesias has some interesting thoughts on this subject:

Q: What do you think are the best practices for urban planning and community input and cooperation? So often, great plans are defeated or watered down [because] of a very vocal minority.

I think it’s important for people to think harder about what the point of community input is. Presumably the idea is that you don’t want outsiders who may not understand the situation to run roughshod over existing residents like in some of these urban renewal nightmare stories. But that means you actually want to get a valid sample of the population, not just whichever subset of the population happens to have the time and inclination to come to meetings. And you also have to listen to what people are specifically sayingare they bringing new information to light, or are they simply advancing very narrow interests… It’s good to listen to everyone, but that doesn’t mean you have to do what they want.

Although I agree with everything above, the case for public meetings deserves a more thorough interrogation than to wave generically at 1960s urban renewal. Whether it’s a transportation project or a development, the greatest value of public meetings is facts, not opinions. How do people use the space? What trips do they make? What little-understood but much-loved institution will the project destroy that a simple change in the plan could save?

If the intention of a project is to benefit the current residents of a particular neighborhood, then it’s important that someone there actually values the improvement. However, many city projects ought not to be specifically intended to benefit the current residents of a particular neighborhood.

Take the example of bringing low-income housing to a relatively wealthy area. There are concrete reasons to oppose low-income housing, beyond prejudice and aesthetics. Living in a neighborhood with  variety of incomes and cultures isn’t for everyone. Moreover, low incomes often bring social problems and lower property values.

I think most readers won’t be particularly moved by those points. Building low-income housing is is about accommodating future residents, meeting the city’s broader social justice goals, and maintaining the city’s diversity, not protecting home values. There’s nothing magical about the neighborhood as a unit of decision, in particular when its intent is measured with deeply flawed public meeting tools, when the city’s robust democratic institutions have decided on a different course.

Which it makes it all the more astounding that when the issue isn’t low-income housing, for many people the much lower-stakes concerns about “scale” and “character” overwhelm the enormous objective advantages of denser housing.

About Martin H. Duke

Martin joined the blog in Fall 2007 and became Editor-in-Chief in 2009. He is originally from suburban DC, but has lived in the Greater Seattle area since 1997. He resides with his family in Columbia City and works as a software engineer in Lower Queen Anne.




Comments

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    Love it. Now how do we build a process that achieves these goals. And maybe that process doesn’t look too different from the current one, with one subtle but important change. We still have public hearings, but it’s clearly stated the (new) intent up front – we are not here to listen to your opinion about what we’re doing, we are here to listen for information we don’t already have.

    • Is that statement about not listening to your opinion happen how many minutes before the pitchforks come out? Maybe I’ve attended too many public hearings but implied in your post is that those running the hearing know best, that is so far from reality to be frankly laughable. (I apologize if you are in fact being ironic or sarcastic and I’ve missed that in your writing).

      The reality really is that those folks offering contrary opinions (something that separates our form of governance from a lot of other places around the world) often have different life experiences and knowledge that bring value in shaping the final result.

      Otherwise why bother holding any hearings or asking for public comment?

      We impose laws on ourselves out of collective agreement. If you don’t have the populace on your side forget it. Hearings are to educate of course. In both directions.

      • “Otherwise why bother holding any hearings or asking for public comment?”

        I don’t think there is a reason to ask for public comment on a building that is being built to regulation and zoning specifications. This piece of public process is a waste of time and money. Unless someone can point out all of the glaring successes of this process that I’m not aware of (just look at all the amazing building designs we get!): Design by committee is just as bad as design by zoning.

        Regarding mega-projects — I think the public outreach process is valuable and should be as broad as possible. Seattleites, in particular, have some pretty strong opinions on how we should be spending our billions and are far more interested in un-compromised transit solutions than the powers that be give them credit for. Those are completely separate issues.

  2. Martin, I think one of the problems is that here in the Pacific Northwest we have a very strong social history of democracy. I’m not arguing we are *actually* more democratic, but rather that, culturally, we believe we are. And over time what began as a way of ensuring the public had a role in decision-making processes has become conflated with direct democracy. How many times have any of us been in a meeting and heard someone say “but I/we/the community does not want this! Do what we say!” or words to that effect?

    There is a basic disconnect that processes which require public input are typically processes that do not require public voter approval. So people think that the public input period is a time to “vote” rather than a time to help craft. It’s a negotiation and a debate, but it is not a seeking, by the government, of a mandate or an approval.

    What’s worse is that when members of the public treat public input as voting, they miss major opportunities to become influencers of the process.

    • Adam Bejan Parast says:

      Well put. I think one issue that can exacerbate this is when community members see a specific meeting as a “decision point”, rather than the beginning of a process or time to give input. I would also add that often when meetings devolve into something other than a meeting, the issue at hand usually isn’t actually the issue people care about, it’s usually about something deeper. In this case it’s about the rapidly change face of Capitol Hill and affordability of the neighborhood. Some people might be mad about 4 vs 5 story buildings but that isn’t the main issue.

    • JonCracolici says:

      So true, and very well put!
      Public input into projects is actually one of my favorite parts of the Seattle process. Without it, I don’t think Ben’s “Option 9″ would have ever been looked at, and the public input in favor of a real subway would not have been heard. That’s an example of people who care about an issue organizing support and using the process the way it’s meant, and in that way public input it very valuable.
      However if you find yourself at a meeting which does not pertain to human rights, and is instead about some zoning minutia, and your blood pressure is going up; you sir, are doing it wrong. Zoning is important, but it is an issue with a wide scope. The zoning of your neighborhood isn’t really important except in the context of the city around it. And that’s why those decisions are made at the city level, not the block level.

  3. Public hearings are also useful for asking questions and getting immediate answers, something you don’t really get with online surveys and emails to the councilmembers.

    But if you want to convey detailed and lengthy information, a public hearing, with a 3-minute time limit, ain’t the way to do it, especially if “haters” (to use Councilmember Clark’s choice of lingo) will interrupt you and not respect the queue.

    Emails and private meetings are good tools to convey information to elected officials. Indeed, if you hold onto your scholarly tomes of research until the public hearing, the information is porbably getting delivered too late to impact the result.

    There are many ways to convey information to the general public, but organizing to control a public hearing is one of the cheapest.

    I’m not an historian, but I’d guess that public hearings were created to get information out to the public cheaply through media coverage. Media, attracted to the scent of political blood, will show up to a public hearing when it would not give the time of day to a public briefing.

  4. And now, permit me to offer a Sam-level critique: Process whining is the last refuge of those who got thoroughly out-organized.

    • Zach Shaner says:

      Busy people juggling competing priorities will always be out organized by those who are intensely opposed to some narrow slice of a proposal. Asking for it to be otherwise is like asking a flood lamp to be as precise as a laser. Opposition is always more intense and more focused than support, which tends to be broad and general. IMO it’s a fundamentally unsolvable problem that is only addressed by recognizing it and then giving less weight to the public comment process, and regularly using other tools (polling, hard-fought elections, etc…) to ensure that proposed policies are broadly representative of public goals. You’re never going to get the silent masses too busy going on dates, going to work, caring for their kids, socializing with friends and loved ones, etc to routinely drop all that to comment on setback requirements or height limits. You’re just not. The only exceptions are the big, sexy things like subways or the minimum wage, in which the energy to get something done might (if you’re lucky) exceed the energy to stop something from being done.

      • So, the silent majority wants uglier buildings, a harder time finding parking spaces, and lousy neighbors with dirty kitchens?

    • Adam Bejan Parast says:

      Would you say the same thing about a process that systematically discriminates against minorities, women, low-income, etc. because that’s essentially what we’re talking about.

      • Are you talking about capitalism or public hearings?

        Are public hearings less representative of the diversity of the community than the posts and comments on this blog?

      • Adam Bejan Parast says:

        I’m talking about the public outreach process of which public hearings should be just one component of many.

        Pointing out that older, wealthier people systematically have more time to turn out to public meetings and organize isn’t complaining. Planners and elected officials, if they want to understanding everyone’s point of view, should spend effort to reach out to those that are not able to make meetings like this.

        I’m not including people on this blog, I’m talking about the young, lower-income, or minority, etc. individuals who make up a sizable population of Capitol Hill in particular, but don’t track issues like this but will be affected by it one way or the other.

        The PSRC Growing Transit Communities Partnership recognized this as an issues and created the Regional Equity Network to bring these people to the table when talking about TOD.

      • Adam Bejan Parast says:

        I would just add that while this is always important, I think it’s especially important for issues where opinions are not uniform among the population. For example lets look at rules related to pot stores. If the only people that turn out to a meeting are parents of school age children, public officials need to take that into account and work to engage the general public, not just those that go to the meeting.

  5. Excellent article.

    The key is to find guidelines that people can support. Then you can address whether the legislation actually meets those guidelines. This is when a public meeting makes a lot of sense. For example, if you are building a new transit center, then one of your guidelines is to get as many people to use the transit center as possible. You might consider building a bunch of new park and ride spots, until the neighbors point out that you can get twice as many people to use the center if you spend the money on a bridge instead. Likewise, you can tell people that while a transit center at Husky Stadium will be reasonably popular, it will be a lot more popular if there is fast, easy bike access (and that includes bike lockers).

    In the case of low rise zoning, we really don’t have those guidelines. Part of the problem is that the voices and opinions are often very simplistic. With everyone chiming in, I’m not surprised that we end up with a mess. There are plenty of people who simply don’t want to see ugly buildings go up in their (or any) neighborhood. Much of the zoning reflects this. A lot of is simply a reaction to the ugly buildings that went up in the 80s (concrete parking lots in front of boring buildings). So now, you have to build a parking lot in the back. This is better, but as many have pointed out, this still leads to ugly buildings.

    To make change, you have to have a solid, understandable plan. Right now, the people who want to see more growth really don’t have one. We are seeing way more action right now on a $15 an hour minimum wage than we are on liberalizing zoning rules. Part of the problem is that people don’t understand the issues. Part of it, though, is that there is no plan, other than “just build more”. We need to acknowledge that quite often, the other side has a point. I’ve written about it before, but I’ve seen very little in the way of trying to get a real movement going. Much of it doesn’t have to be that complicated. For example, for low rise zones, how about the following amendments:

    1) Get rid of the parking requirement, but keep the parking restrictions (if you build parking, you have to adhere to the current regulations, but you don’t have to build parking).
    2) Get rid of the rule that requires a fence. It is stupid, silly and not at all in keeping with Northwest housing design.
    3) Ease up on the the density rules a bit.

    Just doing that means that builders can build 6 or 8 unit buildings where they now could only build 4. The buildings would also be a lot better looking. Given that, it really wouldn’t bother me if we compromised a bit on height limits (especially since they only apply to a handful of low rise zones).

  6. Matt the Engineer says:

    Are any cities trying an online process for this? Sure, there are access issues (though there’s always computers at the local library), but I miss SDOT’s Q&A page of their blog. The received detailed community input, and often found problems they didn’t know about. They’ve replaced it with a formal process, and maybe that’s working, but it was great to read about SDOT-related problems people identified and the excellent responses from SDOT.

    Email is a fine way to handle this online, but it’s nice to have some public back-and-forth to help flesh out details.

    I think what I’m saying is that transit and zoning issues should all be solved in the STB comments section.

    • Check out openplans.org! They are out to revolutionize how on-line participation occurs in city planning.

  7. Justin Gasper says:

    From reading many of the comments posted I think one of the best ways to bring a public meeting discussion to a beneficial level might be raising the academic stakes a bit. Many municipal decisions are well-informed–many people making the comments are not.

    Giving people a vision for what the project seeks to obtain–examples in other areas and statistical research on urban policy–will go a long ways in enabling the public to get behind a project that may not give them immediate benefits. I think a lot of people that oppose sound urban policy just don’t understand the vision that drives it. By highlighting the positives of what a project will bring you may silence the detractors who only realize what the area stands to lose.

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      Right. But educating a room full of people that came to the meeting just to oppose a project doesn’t seem very possible, or like a good use of precious city resources.

  8. I have lived on Capitol Hill for 35 years. I have seen the changes here and in the rest of the City. I grow tired of the people that move in and say “no more. It is fine as it is”. But when the public input is about obeying the rules, rather than changing the rules, I stand with them. In the case of the low rise zoning meeting it was a lot about developers not respecting the intent of the regulations by building micro apartments in a place where the intent was traditional sized units and taking advantage of loopholes to add height without adding benefits. One of many many reasons for zoning regulations is capacity planning. Let’s say regulations and permits expect a build of 800 net bedroom units in a year. Let’s say that the anticipated capacity is 1.6 persons per unit. That is 1400 people using water, sewer, garbage and other utilities, not to mention parking, transportation, fire and safety services. Instead of 800 net increased bedrooms the developers skirt the rules and build 1600 bedrooms, Since some these units are smaller let us assume 1.2 persons per unit. That’s 1920 people,520 more than expected, all using services that are not planned for. Multiply that by hundreds of projects over a couple decades and it won’t be long before Seattle infrastructure is overwhelmed

    I am in favor of density. I think the market will determine whether micro-housing works. I recognize that infrastructure needs to be built to support population growth wherever they live. I also believe that for all of us to be able to live in a civil, clean and orderly society, we need a government that can plan and prepare.

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      Sure. But if that’s really a factor here (is that speculation, or do you know there’s not enough capacity for sewer, water, or electrical service?) why does it take community members to tell the city about this? I would think the planning professionals that work for Seattle would know a lot more about these details than residents.

  9. I think that projects that add density to existing single-family neighborhoods receive a larger-than-typical amount of local opposition because of the composition of most single-family neighborhoods. The majority of owners of existing single-family houses are generally older, and more likely to have children. They care deeply about their household, their street, etc, and are motivated to protect their interests. Pro density advocates are generally younger, less connected to the neighborhood, and quite frankly, feel they have better things to focus their energy on. I say this as a younger, single-family house owner in Portland. This is just what I have observed.

    An interesting related anecdote: My wife works with people from all over the Portland Metro region. She recently had a customer who lived “on acreage” outside of the city. She and her husband occasionally drive into our neighborhood in the city to shop at the fancy grocery stores. A fancy grocery store near us is in a very transit-dense area. It is right next to a major transit center with busses and light rail, and surrounded by businesses and 6+ story apartments on all sides. Except for one. There is one remaining block that has 1920s bungalow houses; most of which have been converted to businesses. A few of these houses are about to be razed to build a 56-unit “micro-apartment” complex, with no off-street parking. The businesses next door, which of course enjoy their free street parking are of course opposed, and have signs telling people to call the mayor and complain. This customer, upon learning that we lived in the neighborhood, said something to the effect of:
    “Can you believe those micro-apartments they are putting in down here?! I called the mayor to complain!”

    This is what we are up against. As a tax-paying resident of the neighborhood, I look at this project and think “oh cool, that should help the rental market”, and I go on with my day. Someone that doesn’t even live in my city goes out of her way to call MY MAYOR to complain? How can you fight that?

  10. I see two different topics here: public input processes and allocating denser neighborhoods. I’ll respond to the first one here. Public hearings are but one mechanism to use in informing the public, and quite frankly it’s one of the least effective at finding solutions. Presenters feel as though they have an answer and react to any input as either supporting or attacking their creation. Attendees usually fall into two camps — skilled speakers who try to push their own agenda and the people who come to listen with no intention of giving input — so nothing really gets decided and the agencies view it as a necessary “check box”.

    Real public input value happens when there are two things: Open questions and tasks given to small groups. Questions should never be yes-no (“Do you like what I’ve proposed or not?”) but should be more open (“The objective is to do this” or “The proposal is to do this” followed by “how can this idea be implemented to best improve the community?”).

    The tasks given to small groups are essential to create a sense of buy in. Small group discussions result in identifying issues quickly and early, understanding points of consensus and creating a forum to discuss pros and cons (and let fears manifest themselves). Say take a focus group of different interests and tell them that they have to create a joint solution (perhaps “How best can we add 1000 dwelling units to the neighborhood.”) Give them basic tools (maps, cost estimates, etc.) to design their decision and let them do it. By the time at least five groups have done this, you will almost always see a consensus emerge on some things and great ideas come forward that the planners never thought of!

    Finally, it’s important to reach out to people who are not “professional meeting goers”. This is especially true if they come from cultures (like in other countries or other places) where community input is ignored. Small groups and open questions are a great way to neutralize one interest group hogging the stage. Another is to not have special meetings, but instead to present things at regularly scheduled events (even street fairs and art walks).

  11. Selling residential density initially as a value judgment tends to get automatic pushback. There is a natural conflict with neighbors who feel that they chose to live in a less dense area in the first place. Thus, the topic has to be approached more delicately and with less fixed attitudes and arrogance.

    First, there needs to be a discussion about the carrying capacity of a neighborhood. How much additional growth can occur, given constraints of transportation, water, sewer, electrical, schools, parks and other things? If constraints are proposed to be exceeded, how much effort is it to expand those constraints? Has there been a public investment already made that suggests that it’s in the larger public interest (like a rail station) to promote residential density? How can density be beneficial to the neighborhood (especially local businesses)?

    Second, there has to be some education about demographic trends. What is the likely growth in single-person households versus those with two or more adults, versus those as families with children, versus extended family households? How flexible are housing options in a neighborhood to be as a person moves from one kind of household into another but wants to stay in that neighborhood? How much growth does that part of the region need to accommodate?

    Once that is established, some recognition of the many different ways to add density need to be weighed? Live-work lofts? Dividing oversized single family homes or lots into more units? A single high-rise building surrounded by open space, as opposed to lower mid-rise buildings up against each other? Rowhouses or postage stamp lot houses? A mix of all sorts of housing types? Using the investment to improve the “feel” of public spaces such as bus stops, sidewalks and parks?

    Finally, it’s important to mix residents with affordable housing advocates, developers, local businesses, local law enforcement and local school representatives (like through many small groups) and give them a challenge and tools to create a consensus-based solution. I’ve often witnessed that having people work for a common goal is a great way to engender support for change!

  12. Simon Says says:

    When will they start seeing developers as important members of the community and stakeholders?

  13. Generally well put. But I’m surprised no one has called you out on this blanket:

    “Moreover, Low incomes often bring social problems and lower property values.”

    I guess I’m not clear about what you’re saying. Do you think low incomes cause these problems? Do you think that providing affordable housing causes these problems? If it “often” happens, can you identify several Seattle examples of how infill affordable housing has exacerbated these problems or decreased housing values? I can’t, so I’d encourage you to substantiate.

    • Martin H. Duke says:

      I’m saying that low incomes often bring these problems. I think people of both right and left would accept without much argument that the poor suffer from more social problems than the affluent. However, after quickly looking at some research I admit that the impact of new affordable housing on property values is mixed and complicated.

      If you are knowledgeable about this subject I would welcome a guest post to set the record straight.

      • Sure, low incomes generally struggle with challenging social issues. But I’m at a loss to understand how they “bring” them — to whom? To me, a neighbor? Does the proximity of lower income neighbors cause non-poor neighbors to suffer as well?

      • Martin H. Duke says:

        I live in a neighborhood that is majority section 8 housing. There are a lot of nuisances — universal littering, petty vandalism, bad language at the local park — that arise from poorly supervised kids. It’s not a big deal; I like my neighborhood. But for some people that’s a dealbreaker, and those aren’t things that happen a lot in uniformly upper-middle-class parts of town.

      • We share the same neighborhood. I hear what you say, and I get that you understand and appreciate the whole package that Columbia City offers. I’m nudging you to think more critically about correlation and causation. I see litter all along Columbian Way, not so much in Rainier Vista’s pocket parks. Are we clear that poverty makes that happen? Maybe it’s poor pedestrian design that turns its back on poverty.

        Think carefully before framing people as the problem. From what you say, these problems may be problems, but they’re not necessarily brought on by lower incomes.

      • Martin H. Duke says:

        I’m referring specifically to Central Park, where the people are.

  14. I was at this meeting. The problem is not only the vocal minority, but also the lack of diversity in outreach. It was mostly older white homeowners, and had almost no renters, young people, or people of different ethnicity that are often associated with apartment dwelling. The people who attended probably also just got off work or were retired, and so had time to trek across the city to scream into a microphone.

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