What the Public Is Thinking

Josh Stephens on
Nov 19, 2011

The outreach process that developers and planners often undergo has always struck me as less a negotiation and more like a perverse game of Marco Polo. Planners and stakeholders chase each other blindly, never quite knowing where each other are and rarely knowing what to do if one actually catches up with the other. It goes something like this: 

"Setbacks?"  "10 feet!"

"FAR?" "2.5!"

"Height limit?"  "40 feet!"

"Parking...?" Don't get me started. 

This process often devolves into the lamest sort of entrenchment, where even if the stakes are trifling, neither side is willing to admit that they have common ground and common interest. Wouldn't it be nice if planners understood what stakeholders wanted before they tried to go to bat for their projects? The first thing they need to know is that everyone hates their project. Once they know that, everything else gets a little easier. 

At last month's Urban Last Institute Fall Meeting in Los Angeles, I attended a panel ostensibly about how developers can contribute to urban design. It was really about how developers and planners can tame the beast known as the public. 

The panel was framed around some compelling survey data collected by Saint Consulting and presented by Saint VP Jay Vincent, who delicately referred to American cities as an "opposition-rich environment." According to Vincent, the 2010 "Saint Index" found the following: 

  • In recent years, opposition to all types of development is down. However, 74% of respondents still said that they would not support any new development in their own communities and only 24% said that their community needs new development.
  • The most strongly opposed types of development include, not suprisingly, landfills, casinos, quarrys, power plants, and large malls. 
  • The most favored are single-family homes and groceries, with 87% and 74% support, respectively. 
  • The demographic group most likely to oppose new development are older, college-educated liberals who earn more than $100,000 per year. 
  • Supporters of new development are more likely to be ages 21-35, educated, and less wealthy -- and therefore less likely to spend time or money opposing a poject. 
  • The group most likely to support new development is the Tea Party: 77% of self-identified Tea Party members leaned towards support of new projects. 
  • Key reasons for opposition to a project are protecting community character (23%), protecting the environment (22%) and protecting the value of a home or real estate (16%). Other reasons for opposition include fear of too much new traffic (13%) and that the project is too close to the person's home (13%).

The good news for planners, however, is that the survey showed that when stakeholders are educated about the positive impacts of a project, they are more likely to support the project. This seems like the biggest no-brainer of all time, but I doubt that planners abide by this advice as often as they should. Planners can get so bogged down in the minutiae of a project that they neglect to remind stakeholders that a project -- new stories, more jobs, more attractive environment, more neighborhood amenities, and all the rest -- is not merely a money-making engine for developers.

If developers think about the benefits that they can confer on stakeholders, then American cities might get fewer timid projects and watered-down compromises. To that end, Vincent recommends that developers and planners not hang back and wait for community opposition to boil over, as it inevitably will. Instead, he recommends that developers present their projects early and often. Once angry neighbors show up, then developers have "lost first-mover status and are on defense," said Vincent. 

So, what do public sector planners do with all of this information? In some cases, they may have to lay low, because the public is very suspicious of the relationship between planners and developers. 51% believe that the "planning environment" is fair to poor and assume that there is an "unfair relationship" between the public sector and developers. Here, too, Vincent recommends that planners be proactive. "The days when a (public official) can just show up for a ribbon cutting are gone," he said. Instead, they need to get out into the community and participate in charettes and other collaborative planning activities. 

Then maybe we'll get something that resembles less a zero-sum game--be it Maro Polo, chess, or Risk--and looks more like democracy.