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 saying
— are 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.