Due to today’s housing crisis, it seems west coast cities are taking on Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition that has stymied new projects and developments via polarizing and protracted public processes. These ‘no-growth’ individuals group together out of an innate fear of change to stop planned development intended to benefit their larger community. In my hometown of San Diego, these polarizing projects range from bicycle lanes, stadiums, house rentals, and to building more homes to address our housing crisis. Their innate ‘fear of change’ response to anything new creates an ethical challenge for every major city trying to build housing or transit.
The ethics of good community planning serves the public’s interest today by balancing social equity with economics and environmental elements to maintain livable and sustainable neighborhoods.
Planning and urban design techniques assists cities and its citizens to navigate the dichotomy of individual/small group fears versus larger city interests. The goal of land use decisions is to ultimately build safer, stronger and more sustainable places. Planning has historically used comprehensive plans, policy documents, regulatory codes, master planning, community visioning and urban design plans to guide new development. Additionally, a new group of city-making tools are being used to create mixed-use walkable urban places across the nation. These tools include Transit-Oriented Developments, form-Based Codes, Complete Streets, Tactical Urbanism interventions, and New Urbanist place making principles. These are intended to make our cities more livable and connected for everyone.
These ‘making cities more livable’ techniques also include public-engagement tools to educate and foster collaboration and conversations with key stakeholders in local communities. Charrettes, workshops, town halls, and interactive webs sites are used to clearly articulate the issues that builds the political will necessary to allow new development or redevelopment to move forward. These public process tools are as important as these planning tools to address the ethical challenges of balancing individual wants with community needs.
The ‘livability’ of a place, according to city planner and author Bruce Appleyard, a professor at San Diego State University, in a 2014 article in Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, is best understood as, “an individual’s ability to readily access opportunities to improve a citizen’s personal quality of life for living, working, playing, shopping, learning, worshiping, resting and moving within his or her city, town or neighborhood.”
We must plan for these collective opportunities in terms of scale, time and intensity. The ethical challenge city’s face is in balancing individual self-interests (NIMBYs) with the collective needs and interests of those many other individuals who inhabit any given community, such as artists, elderly, professionals and social clubs. The profession’s ethical principles, established by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), states, “The planning process must continuously pursue and faithfully serve the public interest.”
The best city-building example of balancing these challenges is revealed in planning for mobility, such as main streets, transit corridors and/or bicycle lanes, as an individual’s personal travel inherently touches the private lives of many others along that public path. To illustrate this balance, a municipality is typically concerned with the safety, air quality, noise pollution, congestion and economic viability of public thoroughfares, while private individuals tend to express concerns with safety, maintenance, time and accessibility.
The Pursuit Of Happiness
The definition of livability given above by Dr. Appleyard (i.e., people’s access to opportunities for the pursuit of improvements to their quality of life) is based on the pursuit-of-happiness clause in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. When coupled with AICP’s code of ethics, and we can begin to think of “planning for livability” as a tool to justify a basic American right that can be used. For example, when we build Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and Complete Streets, we provide an accessible mobility option that serves the greater public.
A TOD development pattern is based on long-standing, traditional mixed-use, walkable villages and neighborhoods that have become cities over time. Mobility supports urbanism. The number and types of individual mobility options, from commuter rail, light-rail, streetcar and bus, to jitney, shared car, private car, bicycle and walking, determine the intensity of a given neighborhood or city and its ability to scale up or down over time. This tool is a collectively valued mobility-based approach to building more housing for individuals.
This applies to Complete Streets based on providing equitable access to public streets via walking, biking, riding transit, shared services, and driving a car. These improvements transform streets from auto-oriented facilities into public spaces that invite various users. The freedom to access a wide-variety of transportation modes supports access for the greatest number of people to the city.
Complete Streets provide a city its biggest return on its social equity investment because it’s built with general funds, doesn’t require management partners, and connects to the widest range of citizens.
Think of the mobility options New York City offers since its transformation of Times Square. New York’s ‘livability’ success has led to social equity issues and a housing affordability crisis. Measuring this balance between individual specificity and collective inclusiveness is at the heart of planning. While the examples above focused on mobility, community planners – seen as stewards of shaping the places in which we live – also must focus attention on issues such as housing, jobs, parks and public services.
A city is always balancing the greater common good versus individual interests. We must be mindful that the purpose of planning and urban design is to guide this dialogue towards building more livable and sustainable places for everyone. The attainment of this goal is constantly shifting between social, economic, environmental, and local political pressures. Balancing these competing interests is our profession’s greatest challenge and purpose.
Design vs. Process?
How do we best balance these competing interests? I agree with famed New Urbanist Andrés Duany, who encourages giving equal value to both design principles and public process as keys to successfully navigating this balancing act. He says that relying only on design principles that have gone untested by local public participation is coercive and lacking authority. Meanwhile, relying solely on a public process without a basis in design principles lacks structure and a credible outcome. These are important because design principles guide individuals and groups toward decisions, and the process provides the structure through which these decisions and compromises can be made.
This balanced approach to planning and urban design is how cities can ethically weigh individual NIMBY reactions with the collective need of citizens to access the city in both mobility and housing terms.
The benefits created by focusing on the rights of all people when making city-wide decisions are found in increasing the opportunities for everyone to improve the quality of their lives. When planning for the livability of our city, we must balance its principles with its processes to justify new projects that meet these collective needs and interests. The intended outcome is to place cities in a better position to compete in the contemporary economy with socially equitable and environmentally responsive places.
Great streetscape NYC, Photo by Erik Heddema on Unsplash.com
Transit oriented development in San Francisco, Photo by Arushee Agrawal on Unsplash.com
Times Square before improvements, photo by Howard Blackson
Times Square NYC after improvements, Photo by David Alacaraz on Unsplash.com