It’s an open secret in the planning community that public meetings are invariably dominated by a chorus of loud voices, voices which focus on preventing change. Those who dissent are marginalized either by something intrinsic to the process, or in some cases, shouted down. This week, a Boston University study further backed that suspicion. A comprehensive overview of public meetings related to zoning in the Boston area revealed that meeting participants who speak tend to be demographically similar – and take the Nimby stance for new housing construction. It serves as a clear warning to policymakers and municipal officials: something is broken with public comment periods.
I’ve written on numerous occasions about loud opposition to development. One common NIMBY tactic is to claim to represent the broader community, portraying their movements as democratic opposition to strong-arm tactics by developers and compliant planners. Increasingly, they will express concern about new housing causing displacement. This study serves to undercut such rhetoric. Some commenters might indeed be genuinely concerned about gentrification and displacement, but it’s hard to argue that they’re speaking on behalf of the community at large. (The study found that the majority of commenters at public hearings are homeowners, not renters.)
An important caveat is that this study analyzed a single metro area. What happens at public meetings near Boston may not be the norm in, for instance, Oklahoma City or Milwaukee. Yet the experience is common enough that these findings ring true. What can be done, then, to make meetings more constructive? Eliminating them certainly is not an option. For all of our attacks on NIMBY sentiment, we’ve seen historical examples of initiatives that were rammed through to destructive effect, or would have burdened a community greatly if allowed to occur unchecked. Just about any highway project undertaken by Robert Moses is an obvious example, but we don’t even need to go back that far. As an example from the study area, community opposition likely helped defeat any hopes of Boston hosting the 2024 Olympics, an event that has historically created massive cost overruns in other cities. The best answer to this "community process" issue is one which enables as many community members as possible to speak.
It’s possible that implicit intimidation is a factor. Where this is the case, officials need to make clear that strong-arm tactics won't be tolerated. What many NIMBYs call passionate displays of opposition may end up silencing another community member who might, for instance, want to see more units added so her family can afford to live nearby. One other possibility might be to put out an invitation in advance of meetings for community members who support a project or policy change to speak (and who oppose it as well) prior to the public comment sessions.
In some cases, the timing of meetings may also have an impact. If a meeting is held in a location which, for instance, is inconvenient to reach by transit, then transit-dependent and lower-income attendees may be discouraged from attending – or unable to attend. Weekday evening meetings – particularly school nights for families – also can serve as a barrier. Consideration could be given to holding meetings on weekends.
NIMBYs often praise the public comment process as a means to allow citizens to speak up. Measures which broaden representation would do this. It’s clearly time for cities and towns to seek out how to add more voices, not just a narrow set of them.