AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

Propose to add bike lanes or narrow traffic lanes or even to install corner bulb-outs in either a suburb or an inner-city neighborhood, and you’re likely to run into the rejection chorus from long-time residents:  “You’ll just make congestion worse.” “Cars will short-cut through our neighborhoods.”  “This discriminates against the car driving majority.”

The issue isn’t the technical details – the size of the bulb-outs, the width of the bike lanes, the height of the speed bumps.  Neither does it usually seem to be about the need to make it safer to walk, bike, or take transit.  Everyone agrees that the roads aren’t as safe as we’d like.  And often it isn’t really about bicycling, or buses, or whatever else has triggered the opposition – many people will tell you that “I’m all in favor of …; but this is just not the right place for this kind of project.”

Still, it’s amazing how quickly these discussions turn into emotional explosions, that rational discussion turns into apocalyptic fury.  In middle class Arlington, for example, one opponent to proposed traffic-calming changes has spent over $40,000 of his own money proclaiming that bike lanes will destroy the local economy and cause huge numbers of injuries.  In once-working class Charlestown, long-time residents demanded the removal of in-town bike lanes and are fighting reducing lane widths on Rutherford Ave. as if these were attacks on their community by subversive outsiders.  In both communities, as in many others, public meetings ended up in angry shouting matches.

Remember “The Music Man” when the traveling salesman got the town in a frenzy about how the new pool tables were “the first big step on the road to the depths of degradation…trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…” (I was in my high school’s performance – the last time anyone let me sing in public!)  What makes new things so scary?  How can we diminish the NIMBY response, perhaps even turning potential opponents into supporters?  And is there something special about transportation issues that we have to take into account?

It’s too easy and shallow to say that people just don’t like change, or at least change in their own community.  It’s true – but not really the point.   Of course, people have learned to deal with the status quo, for all its faults, and change threatens whatever feelings of comfort and security they may have, however tenuous that may be.  But its not change in general that is scary; it’s certain types of change.  And those of us who think that change is needed have to figure out how to deal with that opposition.

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that transportation is a foundational issue.  Along with land-use, transportation is one of the fundamental shapers of social, economic, and physical space – of our neighborhoods and lives.

Second, we need to understand that what worries the “townies” is not the bike lanes – it’s us; or rather, the fact that we are threatening to replace them as creators of local culture and norms.  They fear that the bike lanes, like the groovy coffee shops and fancy restaurants that come with us, are the visible advance guard of a demographic invasion that will disrupt old social networks and probably displace them.  And they may be correct.

Third, we need to deal with the reality – especially in working class or lower middle class areas – that the locals may be correct because those cultural changes also announce that the real estate market is about to devour their neighborhood, raising prices and replacing familiar small businesses.  As in Somerville’s Davis Square, the lucky ones will get to sell out; the majority will just get pushed out.  But the community will be gone.

In order to soften – or even prevent – this NIMBY blowback, which is often strong enough to slow and sometimes to even stop, efforts to upgrade our transportation system to meet the safety, sustainability, and multi-modal requirements of the 21stcentury, we need to address our opponents displacement fears and find ways to control (or at least soften) the speculative impact.

This posting focuses on transportation, but the principles discussed are applicable to almost any issue.  To avoid NIMBY, we need to “do it right.”




Bad Dreams & Angry Mornings

For the past 60 years or so, the United States has been on a building binge, expanding from cramped cities and isolated rural areas into the suburban areas made accessible by new highways.  Our cultural ideology of individual upward mobility seemed real as family incomes rose and people were able to afford homes rather than rent apartments, to buy their own cars rather than share the subway or bus.  Increased personal freedom, improved material conditions, car and home ownership, life in a comfortable community of people with similar values, a feeling of general security, and knowing that you’ve laid the foundation for your children to do even better – this was the American Dream.

But what happens, in both suburb and city, when the dream seems under attack; when all you’ve worked for seemed threatened; when the world you created seems to be breaking apart?  It’s not just the economic hardship caused by four decades of stagnant family earnings or rising unemployment.  (Thirty years ago, the top one percent of the population got 9 percent of total income.  Now they take in almost a quarter.)  It’s also the uncertainty, the insecurity, the anxiety, the feeling of potential danger – from terrorism, climate disruptions, crime, or who knows what else.  Every night’s TV news and every morning’s newspaper seem to reinforce the feeling of cascading catastrophes at every level from international affairs to local streets.


The Face of Disruptive Change

For many long-term neighborhood residents the changes are made visible by the arrival of newcomers whose presence undermines the cohesive communities that they believe once existed (even if the past was never really as good as they remember it to have been); their solution is to fight against anything that changes the neighborhood they wish to preserve.  (For some people, it’s a national issue and the visible actors are government leaders and immigrants, among others; their solution is to eliminate public institutions and push out non-citizens.)

And it makes sense that bike lanes and streets are one of the flash points.  Transportation shapes land-use, which shapes demographics and economic development — meaning the cost of housing, the types of shops, the types of people, and the community culture.  Bike lanes can seem like an enemy column sneaking into town bringing usurping strangers into the heart of what some people believe should belong to them.

In fact, the spandex-clad newcomers riding expensive bikes are arriving in the company of disruptive market forces that seek to upscale and resell old neighborhoods.  Capitalism is famously described as “creative destruction” and the non-natives are both the beneficiaries and instigators of this change. The installation of a new subway stop, the “greening” of a town center, the building of luxury condos, the planting of trees, the appearance of public art, and the addition of bike facilities – all these recreate the community in their image, in the process making land more valuable and housing more expensive.  In a free market economy, these are the weapons of population transfer.  And everyone knows who will have to move.

We already recognize this process in city neighborhoods.  We call it gentrification.  And it’s what sometimes leads local leaders in low-income areas to see infrastructure improvement as a threat rather than a helpful response to their community’s problems.  The new trolley stop, the improved park and playground, the revitalized elementary school, and the addition of bike facilities – all these are harbingers of future changes in area residents’ racial and/or class composition.


Facing Fears, Dealing With Realities

Fear of loss. Vulnerability to market forces.  This is the reality in inner city ghettos, working class inner-ring suburbs, and precariously middle-class outer suburbs.  It’s not that people are dumb, or ignorant, or even because they are prejudiced –although many are.  In “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein cite research showing that “losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy…people are ‘loss averse.””  Still, the threats they face, the feelings they have, are real.

So those of us who think that communities count, that public action can, and should, find ways to raise the quality of life for everyone – we need to rethink our strategies.  Even if all we are interested in is bike lanes or transit expansion or better sidewalks, we have to understand that people’s fears of loss are at least partially legitimate and deserve our attention, if only because it will help reduce their level of opposition.  We also need to deal with the reality that our efforts will also attract private investment and new residents into our neighborhoods, which are mostly good things but they occur with the brutal impact of an uncontrolled market.

So what does this mean?  Most fundamentally, we need to recognize that transportation does not stand alone.  Whether it’s a bike lane or a revised bus schedule or a new train station, we have to accept that the overall nature of the community must be within our scope of concern – housing affordability and property values, ownership of commercial real estate, membership levels of local religious institutions and organizations, the comfort of senior citizens.


Broadening The Agenda

As Jeanne Dubois, from the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (a non-profit CDC — http://www.dbedc.org/) often points out, we need to move, like a train, on two tracks – organizing people at the same time we organize development.  We need to involve as broad a range of people as possible in transportation planning, and every other type as well.  This is both democratically strategically desirable.  Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces (http://www.pps.org/) has shown that, rather than focus on road design, it’s best to start with the kind of activities and “feel” that people want – almost everyone will end up asking for some combination of friendlier and more inviting, safer, more livable with more things to see and do, more green spaces, less noise and pollution, slower traffic, safer intersections, a stronger local business district, and even more accommodating for those who want to bike to shop or get to work.  Massachusetts’ South Coast Rail project (http://www.southcoastrail.com/) ran focus groups in every community in the potential corridor asking what qualities and areas they wanted to preserve and where future growth would be best concentrated.  Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone says we need to be planning for 50 years into the future!

Being explicit about values is also important.  Self-interest is the starting point for most of our opinions – including those of us who want change.  But the dangerous selfishness of that perspective can be softened and broadened by our equally deep desire to have meaning, to feel we’re doing the right thing, to support socially applauded values.  Change is uncomfortable and potentially risky.  So as part of our coalitions we need to involve local forces that provide a broader value-based perspective on the importance of working through the issues, particularly religious and civic groups with a history of open-minded concern for their community’s wellbeing as well as their members’ souls.  The goal, seldom reached, is to go beyond assembling an aggregation of people and groups.  Even if it only happens among a small network of leaders, the goal is to develop enough trust that people are able to overlook small differences and (the inevitable) tensions in order to work together for a common vision.

During this process, it is also important to bring people’s worries to the surface – displacement and lowered property values being the most frequently voiced.   Responding to (and reducing) those fears, which are based on vulnerability to market forces, requires being willing to explore a broad range of policies and actions not part of the typical community development toolbox – expanding the amount of Section 8 rental housing subsidies, setting up land banks and limited equity housing, pushing banks to renegotiate “underwater” mortgages, demanding “fair fares” for new transit lines, even creating a community-controlled CDC or looking at ways to control rents.   Jeanne Dubois says that controlling land is the key: “It’s like playing monopoly – you need to own at least one property in each area to keep the richer players from building hotels.”

(And we have to re-examine rent control.  I know the libertarians out there will protest, but it’s what kept Cambridge economically diverse despite the pressure of expanding universities and high-tech-attracted populations.  When rent control was removed – through a massively funded state-wide effort to eliminate the right of local towns to decide for themselves if they wanted to have it – the middle class quickly disappeared from the city.  The schools reflect the change – the kids either come from low-income living in the remaining subsidized housing or professional families.   There’s few from in-between.)


Capturing Public Value

We need to be creative and wide reaching in our strategies because it is important to capture some of the increased value that public actions create and use it for the public good – focusing on ways to protect those who are most likely to be hurt by the new developments such as tenants, middle-income homeowners, and long-term local small businesses.

All this makes getting a simple bike lane seem very complicated.  It’s just a stripe in the road, and cyclists should have as much right to safe space in the public way as anyone else.  In fact, if all that’s being discussed is one bike lane, then the rest of this expanded strategy is unnecessary – although Cambridge did a great deal of it when planning for the city’s first cycle track on Western Ave.

But, in truth, we’re not usually really thinking about one bike lane, one bulb out, one multi-use path.  We’re really thinking about a way of life that values sustainability, physical activity, and hip coffee shops at least as highly as a newly washed car or a manicured front lawn.  If we believe that what we are doing is in any way connected with these larger changes, then we need to start building the coalitions that create the political will to make them part of the accepted spectrum of options in our towns.


Democracy, Equality, Community

Culture, consciousness, and political ideologies usually change much slower than economic and social reality.   Even progressive political movements typically face the future using values grounded in the past.  In a post-Cold War world in which it seems impossible even for an African-American President elected by a progressive coalition to implement positive alternatives, it’s very hard to figure out what to do now that the American Dream is having nightmares.

But steering a path forward between the destructive whirlpools of fear and greed is in all our interests.  We already know that the greater a society’s degree of inequality the weaker its democracy.  In “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett go on to show that the more unequal a society’s division of resources and power, the greater the social problems experienced by people at every level of the hierarchy.  It’s not just the material suffering of those at the bottom or even in the middle.  It’s about the overall quality of life and the amount of personal dysfunction.  The mechanisms are always clear, although one suggestion is that the higher the cliff between the top and the bottom the more life turns into a vicious competition for survival, the more insecurity everyone feels, and the less we are able to express our humanizing feelings or act in loving ways even towards family and friends.  (For more, see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1948806,00.html and


The world today seems tough, a bit out of control, scary, and hard to change.  But, as a former history teacher, I know that people have felt this way many times in the past as well.  And some of their situations were much, much worse.   Take a deep breath.  Now move on.  As a character sighs in Elizabeth Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, “It was always sad, the way the world was going.  And always a new age dawning.”


Related Previous Posts:

SHAPING TRAVEL CHOICES: The Four C’s of the Behavioral Context

REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

DESIGNING EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS: Mobilizing Constituencies, Developing Expertise, Sustaining Action

THE THREE LEGS OF A HEALTHY BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture

THE COMPLEX INGREDIENTS OF LIVABLE CITIES: Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education

BROKEN WINDOWS & BROKEN STREETS: Livable Streets as a Strategy to Reduce Crime and Support Local Business

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