Rethinking Public Input for More Equitable Results
The community meeting is intended to be the ultimate democratic process. By giving every community member the opportunity to show up and make their voices heard, public meetings should lead to beneficial outcomes.
These opportunities for public feedback about housing development create veto points whereby citizen objections can delay or even stop the construction of new housing. In theory, this is a good thing: it empowers neighborhoods that were historically disadvantaged in the planning process to have a say about what happens in their community.
In practice, these meetings don’t empower community members equally. Minutes for meetings about new housing development in almost 100 Massachusetts cities and towns show that commenters are disproportionately white, male, older, and homeowners. The majority are also opposed to new housing development – 63% of all comments registered were negative.
It’s a trend that’s consistent in affluent suburbs, big cities, small cities, poor cities, and diverse cities. These meetings advantage a privileged group to protect their neighborhood boundaries.
In 2018, demand for new housing in the United States outpaced supply by 370,000 units. The meeting attendees who come out to oppose new housing are preventing communities from meeting this demand. And when developments are approved, they are more likely to be located in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that aren’t empowered to participate in the process.
As projects proceed through the permitting process, the redesigns and additional studies that have to be undertaken as a result of pushback add significant costs for developers. Beyond the expense of producing new studies, one month of delays can add around $250,000 to the cost of a large real estate development project – leaving less room for affordable housing units and other community benefits.
A common refrain in response to these challenges is to suggest that communities change how, or when, in-person meetings are held. By shifting meeting times or offering childcare, the logic goes, more community members will be able to attend.
While these initiatives could increase attendance, they may motivate more project opponents to attend. Research on “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV) operations on political campaigns offers illustrative and cautionary lessons. While many GOTV operations produce higher turnout, greater participation does not mean more equal participation. The bulk increase participatory inequalities by turning out already over-represented individuals.
This isn’t to say community meetings should disappear. They’re a key part of the process. Rather, municipal planners and real estate developers need to offer other opportunities for community members to provide their input.
Online community engagement can provide a simple way for more people to participate in the conversation. Text-to-comment functionality, translation services, and opportunities for structured input offer pathways for feedback outside of the meeting room. These additional channels lower barriers to participation and make community conversations more accessible.
The difference between online and in-person feedback is striking. Across all projects on coUrbanize’s community engagement platform for real estate and planning, 80% of feedback is positive or neutral. Compare that to data from meetings showing that 63% of comments are in opposition to proposed projects.
More old-fashioned outreach can also be effective. Local officials could forge relationships with local community organizations to better reach underserved populations. In Milwaukee, WI, a local alderman representing a diverse district lamented the homogeneity of meeting attendees for a proposed affordable housing development in his neighborhood. He reached out to a local faith community in his district, asking them to encourage their constituents to reach out by phone to provide their views on the proposed development. In contrast to the negative in-person discourse, he found that the people contacted by phone were a more diverse subset of the population, and were far more positive towards the new housing ideas. Despite sizable neighborhood opposition—with all the neighborhood groups voting in opposition to the project—the city councilor decided to vote for it because the majority of phone calls were supportive.
Structural changes can also mitigate the impact of the vocal minority who make up the majority of comments in public meetings. In many public meetings, officials hand down decisions immediately after deliberating over public comment. Incorporating a waiting period into the process would allow board members to incorporate the full body of evidence into their decision; rather than subjecting their decision to recency bias.
Boards should publish clear guidelines about the studies that developers will be asked to provide. Boards frequently ask developers to provide additional (and costly) traffic, engineering, shadow, and parking studies (among others) – often to appease angry neighbors.
By demanding studies until one offers the desired result, communities are increasing costs & delays, and potentially basing important decisions on invalid studies. Setting clear standards for studies reduces their use as a delay tactic and provides planning boards with better information.
The public meeting is a crucial tool for communities, but it isn’t sufficient. To meet the demand for housing in our communities, we need to rethink how we hear and evaluate public input.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.
Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.
The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.
Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.
While the outlook for the environment may often seem bleak, there are many proven methods already available for cities to make their energy systems and other infrastructure not only more sustainable, but cheaper and more resilient at the same time. This confluence of benefits will drive investments in clean, efficient energy, transportation, and water infrastructure that will enable cities to realize their sustainability goals.
Given that many of the policy mechanisms that impact cities’ ability to boost sustainability are implemented at the state or federal level, municipalities should look to their own operations to implement change. Cities can lead as a major market player, for example, by converting their own fleets to zero emission electric vehicles, investing in more robust and efficient water facilities, procuring clean power, and requiring municipal buildings to be LEED certified.