In 2018, Sarah Meyer, then chief customer officer with New York City Transit, was fielding questions at a public meeting in the 14th Street Y near Union Square. The topic of the meeting was moving a few bus stops a few hundred feet so they were better spaced out.
While working one of the tables, a man Meyer described as about 60 or 70 years old sauntered up to her. He said he was representing “everyone from his building,” Meyer said. They were opposed to the MTA moving bus stops. Meyer tried to explain why they were doing it—there are international standards for bus stop distances, and this stop was far too close to the other stops. With fewer stops, the buses would be faster.
But the man was worried that his neighbor, whom he said had mobility issues, wouldn’t be able to go to the grocery store anymore. Meyer responded that if the person was not able to walk a few extra hundred feet to catch the bus, they could take advantage of one of the many options for homebound or mobility-impaired New Yorkers to get food, such as the MTA’s paratransit service with accessible vehicles that offer door-to-door service.
“When I said ‘paratransit service,’ he just completely, I would say, lost it,” Meyer said. The man told Meyer that she was worse than Hitler. Worse than Donald Trump tearing children away from their parents at the border. He told Meyer she was personally causing people to starve and die.
Meyer was not a hardened MTA employee prepared to absorb these types of remarks. She took the job because she wanted to help make getting around New York better, particularly for people for whom it is currently difficult. Now that she was trying to do that, she was being told by a member of the community that, in fact, she was killing people.
Not all community feedback meetings for housing and infrastructure projects go this poorly, but it is hardly surprising one did. The community feedback process (also known as “public hearing,” “public comment,” “community input,” or “community hearing,” among endless variations) is the all-too-often crude and cruel tool at the heart of America’s urban productivity crisis, our widespread inability to efficiently and cost-effectively build new transportation and housing. What started out as a sensible idea for not repeating the mistakes of the past has gotten out of control.
None of this happened by accident. That ordinary people should have the power to block things in their neighborhood they don’t like was the intended result of a concerted, organized political reaction to various government policies and fuck-ups of the 1960s and 1970s, both in American cities specifically and in America in general. It was billed as the solution to the ever-present perceived problem of “big government,” from Vietnam to Watergate to urban renewal and race riots and energy crises.
Researching this article, I spoke to historians, activists, researchers, and planners with extensive experience in the community feedback process all over the country. Some have attended dozens of meetings, others hundreds or even thousands. Fundamentally, fixing this mess requires re-thinking what community feedback is for. In short, the problem with community feedback is not the concept itself, but the way it is executed. We do it too often, for too many things, for too long, and in the wrong manner. We ask the wrong questions of the wrong people and use the answers in the wrong way. Professionals and politicians have so far been afraid to admit there is a problem outside of private conversations, because it can seem anti-democratic and even anti-American to appear opposed to the town hall ethos of local control.
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Most everyone I spoke to for this story wants to do away with the community input process for minor projects like small developments and bike lanes (although a few do not). Instead, most think there should be extensive and comprehensive community outreach programs to formulate citywide plans that actually reflect the reality on the ground so we don’t need permits to build basically anything that triggers community feedback. For transportation, even people who agree the current system doesn’t work are often unsure of how to fix it in a way that doesn’t itself require more time, money, and investment in community outreach, resources most transit agencies do not have. At the very least, though, most transit agencies need to transition to a rolling feedback model through digital methods—and prove they’re listening by actually changing things and letting people know they’ve done so—rather than relying on scheduled, structured, federally mandated meetings with one-way feedback.
Until any or all of this happens, we will continue muddling through using the current, failed system, with profound consequences for the affordability of and quality of life in our cities. We cannot build the things we need, like housing and transportation options, for many reasons, including soaring costs attributable to political and bureaucratic failures. People do not trust our decaying public institutions to do anything competently, so we underfund them and create obstacles to productivity which make them function even worse. A key problem at the center of this death spiral is the ceaseless and ever-present need for community feedback on most projects big or small.
More feedback means more time spent on studies and meetings, which delay building, which costs more money. Public officials don’t know what to do with all the feedback they get, so most people who participate feel ignored, which creates more hostility in the next round of feedback. The feedback process itself has turned into such a grind of hateful, vitriolic free-for-all that competent public officials either have to tune it all out—which defeats the entire point of feedback—or leave the profession.
Meyer, after getting booed at a meeting in Co-Op City, a Bronx housing development, like she was the Boston Red Sox, or getting shouted at for hours on end during countless other meetings, chose the latter. She left the transportation agency earlier this year. And she was hardly alone. “You look at the planning department and you look at your government and community relations department and my department, which was customer, and you saw the incredible turnover, because of some of these meetings, because of the vitriol and the attacking. It really had an effect,” Meyer said.
While she was still at the MTA, Meyer would occasionally recount the Hitler remark. Some of her longer-tenured colleagues, who learned to deal with the public meetings by tuning them out, would laugh. “But I wasn’t laughing,” she said.
So, You Want to Build Something in a City
Want to build something big in a city, like a new train line? Get ready for dozens if not hundreds of community meetings in every neighborhood that the subway will go through.
You, a transportation expert working on the project, will have to be present. Federal laws will require at least some of those meetings. But you will also be told by lawyers, politicians, and environmental review consultants to hold several dozen, perhaps even hundreds, more meetings than required by the law so that when angry rich people inevitably sue to stop the project, you will be ready with more than ample evidence that the community was sufficiently engaged and all alternatives were explored.
A randomly-assigned judge who may or may not know anything about environmental review laws or transportation construction will decide what exactly defines sufficient community outreach, which means it could mean anything. So you will be told to do it all, and then do it again and do it some more. Random people from the community who haven’t even looked at your proposal will demand you study some new routing that you, a person with a master’s degree on the subject, know is nonsensical by any conceivable measure. You will have to study it so you can tell the judge you studied it. You will then have to respond to that person in writing, without using any mean words. Each of these additional studies will cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and add months to the project. Those same cost overruns will be decried by the very people who showed up to the meetings demanding you do those studies as evidence you’re incompetent and shouldn’t be allowed to build anything in the future with their hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
In total, responding to all of this feedback—none of which is likely to be incorporated into the project because it was mostly provided by people who don’t want the project built at all—will take years, hundreds of planners and consultants, and cost tens of millions of dollars in direct costs, plus untold millions in indirect costs from the delay.
Or, maybe you’re a small-time developer and want to build something modest like a four-story apartment building with four units where there is currently an empty building? For housing, in nearly every city in the country, a local planning committee must approve any project that requires a zoning variance or special permit. While the word “variance” or “permit” implies these might be rare cases, it is in fact extremely common. For example, Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, found that of Chicago’s 50 largest building permits for residential construction, 43 (86 percent) had to go through a special development process that includes a community feedback component. Three Boston University researchers who wrote a book called Neighborhood Defenders found that 40 percent of Manhattan buildings would need a variance or special permit if they were to be renovated or expanded—or torn down so that something new could be constructed on the land—simply because they were built before modern building codes. (No such variances are required in unincorporated lands far outside city centers, a significant but underappreciated mechanism for urban sprawl over the last several decades.)
Horror stories abound. Idaho Falls, Idaho was recently ranked as one of the country’s “most overvalued housing markets,” and Patrick Malone, president of Idaho Realtors, told the local press earlier this year “there are no affordable houses in Idaho.” But a proposed development just outside Idaho Falls requires the zoning be changed from R1 for single-family homes to R2, which allows townhomes and “multiplexes” (usually about three or four stories and 5-10 units). This has neighbors “concerned.”
“If they change the zoning to R-2, then [the developer] can fill this entire acreage with fourplexes,” one woman told the local newspaper. “We do not have the infrastructure to support that many people,” she said, citing overcrowded schools and traffic-clogged roads. Another neighbor, Susan Bodily, was worried her property value would “diminish drastically” because “These are all single-family dwellings around here and people have worked hard to get these places with acreage and trees. To put [townhomes] next to it just doesn’t seem consistent or even make sense.” Her hope is the upzoning is rejected by the planning board and the developer has to build large, single-family homes instead “so that we can keep the integrity of this area.”
Or consider this more mundane example from Neighborhood Defenders. A developer wanted to convert an old, unused warehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a four-unit apartment building with four parking spaces. This required approval by the local planning board. Six people showed up to the meeting opposing it because it was “too dense” and one parking space per unit was, in their view, not enough. The board was going to approve the variance but instead ordered more studies. The developer negotiated with the six people. Ultimately, after months of delay, they agreed the building would have one more parking space per unit and one fewer unit.
Hope For the Best
The people who show up to meetings opposing virtually everything have become so consistent in so many cities across the country that they have become a meme, ridiculed and caricatured (and in some cases sympathetically profiled by major publications). They are the NIMBY, the “neighborhood defender,” stereotyped as older, white, wealthy, often male, and nearly always a homeowner. The research shows that is a largely accurate characterization.
Indeed, community meetings are no longer a celebrated part of American democracy. They have quite literally become a joke. “Citizens of Pawnee” meetings were a running gag through several seasons of the hit comedy Parks and Rec.
Two comedians, Tom Allen and John Parr, with surfer dude personas made a name for themselves giving parody testimony at actual public meetings to such viral acclaim that they now have their own Netflix show.
The extent to which all these meetings look and feel almost exactly alike in the same it-would-be-funnier-if-it-wasn’t-true way was highlighted in a 2019 McSweeney’s article titled “Every NIMBY’s Speech at a Public Hearing.” It was one of the publication’s 10 most-read articles that year. The author, Chas Gillespie, told the publication in a retrospective on the article’s success that he lives in a small Midwestern city that “thinks of itself as liberal and reasonable, but when I go to the city council meetings and listen to people talk, I don’t hear reasonable people disagreeing about the best way to meet a common goal. I hear people who are severely misinformed and very prideful and generally hostile to the idea that their righteousness is not wholly earned engaging in angry, bullying tactics to convince politicians that, because they are angry and loud, they must be right.”
Gillespie said he “got a significant number of emails from people all over the country” testifying that his portrayal of NIMBYs was spot on. At first, he wrote, he felt “heartened by this in a spirit of solidarity” and “flattered because I felt I had gotten the representation ‘right.’” But eventually he realized the implication. “It meant that cities that I had thought got it or were on the right track actually had very serious issues with NIMBYism, which was inhibiting progress in a number of areas.”
That a certain type of unrepresentative person tends to show up to these meetings and say the same unrepresentative, ignorant, and sometimes offensive things—every planner told me they have dealt with racism, both veiled and unveiled, at community feedback meetings—has many professionals who have to sit through them questioning the value of this feedback.
“The more we listen to the haters, the more I feel like we’re jumping through these hoops to do better and better outreach that isn’t giving us more useful information necessarily,” said a planner at New York City’s Department of Transportation. Motherboard granted the source anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “This is very different from how I thought about things a decade ago.”
“We can get ridership data from the MTA and people are like, ‘government lies’…And then we’ll do surveys at bus stops. We’ll have pictures of people on the bus…And it doesn’t matter.”
For example, the planner’s agency was recently accused at a local community meeting of busing people to Brooklyn from Manhattan to use a popular but contentious open street and then lying about how many people from the neighborhood used it. It is also common, the planner said, for community board members to reject statistics on how many people ride certain bus routes, a dynamic I also witnessed when covering New York City subway L train shutdown community meetings in the West Village in 2018 where wealthy townhouse owners accused the MTA of lying about how many people ride the L line.
“We can get ridership data from the MTA and people are like, ‘government lies,’” the DOT planner said. “And then we’ll do surveys at bus stops. We’ll have pictures of people on the bus.” And it doesn’t matter. “The people who really hate what we’re doing aren’t moved by this work at all.”
Indeed, the underlying assumption at the heart of the community feedback process is that it will somehow end in “the community” reaching a decision on what it wants which public officials will then enact. This assumption butts up against a half-century of evidence that people show up and yell at their neighbors and government officials instead.
As a result, government workers are left to reconcile incomprehensible, contradictory, and often demonstrably false statements masquerading as feedback, and know that whatever they choose they will make lots of people angry. The conclusion often ends up being to regard the meetings as “a checkbox in the process,” as the planner put it, and “hope for the best.” The people who show up sense this, which only engenders more hostility and anger.
The question, then, is how to end a fruitless cycle of engagement for engagement’s sake, community input that offers no valuable input, meetings that attract people of such specific demographics their feedback is obviously not representative of anything other than themselves, and endless public review of virtually everything cities want to build, without swiping it all off the table and proposing a blatantly anti-democratic, quasi-totalitarian alternative.
More specifically, it also requires re-thinking what the meetings actually look like. Some of this would require changes to federal regulations for projects that receive federal funding, but mostly it requires changes on the local level instead.
Above all, we must recognize the community feedback process is not supposed to result in consensus. Cities are big, diverse, chaotic places, and that is what makes them good. As Freemark put it, “The reality is that we live in a contested place where people have very different opinions about what they want to build or have in their society. And that to me is fine.”
There will always be disagreement, especially on big projects or questions that can make a difference in people’s lives. People ought to have an outlet to express their opinions on those big questions. The trick is doing so in a way that doesn’t hobble our ability to reach an ultimate conclusion, if not consensus, and move forward.
None of this happened by accident. Participatory democracy was a concerted, organized political reaction to what was happening in the middle of the 20th century.
Starting in the postwar era, city planners and politicians enacted a multi-decade regime of urban renewal. This program tore down entire neighborhoods to either build new developments, highways, or entertainment, arts, and commerce centers in an effort to “revitalize” downtowns. Planners wanted to do this because the white middle class largely fled cities to government-subsidized suburbs, eroding urban tax bases.
The revitalization didn’t work and irrevocably damaged the public perception of what urban planners and so-called experts actually know. By the mid-to-late 1970s, it was clear U.S. cities were in crisis, and the big, flashy urban renewal projects the experts said would save our cities and tearing down neighborhoods to build highways not only didn’t help but probably made things worse.
But there was a lot else going on in the country then, too, that had Americans in all walks of life questioning the value of expertise and big government. Pew Research Center has been tracking what percent of Americans say they trust the government to “do what is right” always or most of the time since 1958. It peaked in 1964 at 77 percent, when Americans broadly trusted in the technocracy of American business and political elites to usher in a better world through optimization and planning. It then declined for 16 straight years as that belief proved unfounded—Vietnam, Watergate, urban riots, assassinations, energy crises, etc.—until it bottomed out at 26 percent in the waning days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1980, just before Ronald Reagan took office on an anti-expertise small government platform. In 1969, political scientist Theodore Lowi concluded in a book titled The End of Liberalism that Americans had just experienced a “crisis of public authority.”
On the local level, many urban Americans connected presidents lying about Vietnam, covering up Watergate, and surging crime and urban decay as one giant interconnected issue: The people in charge had too much power and didn’t know what they were doing.
Avoiding the mistakes of the past, both in urban and national politics, involved limiting the powers of “big government” to muck things up. Instead, local citizens would make decisions for themselves, a recurring theme that runs throughout George Washington University professor Suleiman Osman’s excellent book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York, which essentially acts as a profile of young NIMBYs in the making. A cohort of mostly white, young, upwardly-mobile urban professionals moved into brownstones at a time when they were not coveted real estate and formed close alliances based on shared values of anti-suburban “authenticity” (antique stores, mom-and-pop shops, anything “prewar”) and neighborhood activism. They opposed federally-backed urban renewal programs like the one in downtown Brooklyn that destroyed brownstone blocks and replaced them with municipal buildings and large apartment towers. They envisioned locally-controlled citizen organizations making the key decisions for their neighborhoods, not machine politicians or bureaucrats in Washington.
Jacob Anbinder, a PhD candidate at Harvard studying how local groups affected urban growth in this period, told me that people largely knew what they were doing. It was clear that, for example, empowering community boards in the name of ultra-democratic local control would paradoxically have an anti-democratic outcome.
“All these studies are done of how representative they [community boards] are,” Anbinder said of the time before the reforms were actually enacted. “And they all find they’re not representative at all.” As now, they were disproportionately white, wealthy, educated homeowners. Voters chose to empower these boards with extensive local control. Voters also rejected a proposal to make the boards elected and therefore more democratic.
“And so, you know, in some ways, there was democratic agreement that this is the form that they ought to take, even though it was clear to many people at the time that they were not representative, and that they probably were never going to be representative if they assumed that form,” Anbinder said.
This move towards local control occurred more or less simultaneously in cities and states around the country on issues ranging from tax rates to school bussing programs.
In this way, seemingly unrelated controversies like the Lower Manhattan Expressway, downtown Brooklyn redevelopment, school busing, urban riots, property tax rates, and countless other controversies of the time were all stories about big government stepping on the toes of ordinary citizens. As in many revolutions, the participants in this one agreed on what they didn’t want, but did not agree on what they wanted to replace it with. Some neighborhood activists, Anbinder said, wanted more checks on the urban power structure. Others were fundamentally conservative, wholly anti-growth and anti-change, and many of them ended up dominating local planning boards.
“This is actually something that I’ve struggled with in writing,” Anbinder said, referring to the obvious anti-democratic impact of these policies. “How do you write about that sort of history, where it seems like people either just didn’t know or they didn’t care?”
“A Citizenry of Gandhian Humanists”
Not only was this new emphasis on local control a stunning political change, it was also a reversal for the urban planning profession in particular.
Prior to this citizen revolt, urban planners made grand, city-changing models for what they thought a city ought to be. This often involved demolishing hundreds if not thousands of buildings and replacing them with something entirely different. This was usually in the name of progress and better living by replacing old buildings with new ones, empty lots with municipal buildings, atrophying shopping districts with malls and plazas. In some cases, it was also a tool to demolish communities of color that were overcrowded and threatening to spill over into neighboring white areas.
The degree to which any of this involved talking to the people who actually lived in these places varied greatly. When it came to highway construction, an influential conference of highway engineers in 1958 called the Sagamore Conference on Highways and Urban Development endorsed “a robust citizen participation element” to transportation planning, according to historian Sarah Jo Peterson, but mostly as a marketing and promotion effort. The resulting report actually uses the word “indoctrinated” to refer to the desired end goal of all that outreach. One of the most influential historians of the U.S. highway building process, Edward Weiner, wrote in a policy brief that has since been revised and updated through the decades that “citizen participation” was a “new issue” in 1976.
In other words, this period was marked by urban planners actively debating whether “the community” should be consulted at all before they decided what to do with their neighborhoods. For example, when researching a story on a highway in Syracuse that was built on top of a demolished working class Black neighborhood in the 1950s, I found newspaper articles about state highway officials holding public meetings about the plan. But they appeared to be perfunctory in nature, largely promotional, and otherwise geared towards telling people that their homes would be destroyed.
The planning regime at the time was, at its best, altruistic and well-intentioned, often misguided, yet deeply committed to public engagement, as was the case with Ed Logue, a once-famous urban planner who worked in New Haven, Boston, and New York. And at its worst it was downright monstrous, such as when I-85 was intentionally re-routed by a local racist through Montgomery, Alabama’s Black ward for the express purpose of destroying the neighborhood.
To its credit, the urban planning profession responded to all these ills, both unintentional and otherwise, and did something virtually unprecedented. It came to agree with its critics and neutered its own influence.
“These people are members of the community. They care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.” -Leslie Knope, Parks and Rec
In recent decades, urban planning textbooks have worshiped at the altar of community feedback, preaching the virtues of getting “the community” on board with any changes big or small. The urban planning profession, recognizing its past sins, ceded all claims to authority and expertise, embracing the Jane Jacobs viewpoint from The Death and Life of Great American Cities that heralded the “eyes on the street” expert rather than that of the master planner. As Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope put it in a way that aptly satirizes the last 50 years of urban planning, “These people are members of the community. They care about where they live. So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.”
To emphasize the unprecedented nature of this change, a 2011 article in Places Journal, an urban planning publication, titled “Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning,” asks readers to imagine “economists at the Federal Reserve holding community meetings to decide the direction of fiscal policy” or “public health officials giving equal weight to the nutritional wisdom of teenagers—they are stakeholders, after all!” The author, Thomas Campanella, a professor in urban studies at Cornell, paints a picture of modern urban planners as an “umpire or schoolyard monitor” and “mere absorbers of public opinion” passively waiting “for consensus to build.”
The result of this power shift has been that well-meaning individuals go to school to make our cities objectively better. Unlike planners of the past, they do not imagine cities which do not exist and try to implement them as a grand experiment. Instead, they learn lots of ways that have empirically been proven in real places around the world to improve living conditions. They learn how to do it in a city they will one day work for. They get jobs to enact what they learned. Then, they get yelled at by the people whose lives they’re trying to improve, told they don’t know what they’re talking about, that they’re lying and evil and worse than Hitler. And they have been conditioned by the very education they received to believe that those people are the real experts.
Zabe Bent has worked in urban planning for various cities for nearly 20 years. She has two master’s degrees in how transportation affects public health, accessibility, and climate change. And yet, she told me, “I still come back to this place where I feel that our jobs as transportation experts, as planners, as designers, as engineers, is to use our technical expertise and to combine it with the community’s expertise on the community that they’re in. Their expertise is absolutely different. It is not in transportation, perhaps. But they’re experts in the place where they live and work and go to school and play. And we are supposed to use that information to inform better outcomes.”
This all sounds good in theory—experts working with local citizens in good faith on a plan to make their city better. But as Campanella put it, “The literature on grassroots planning tends to assume a citizenry of Gandhian humanists” with virtually unlimited time and patience to attend meetings, discuss proposals, consider alternatives, and come to a consensus.
As Bent herself admitted, it does not work this way. It is a messy, contentious, and deeply resource-intensive process to actually get meaningful feedback. One project she worked on to introduce a busway in San Francisco required planners talking to more than 1,000 merchants on the corridor multiple times. And that was just the merchants, not to mention the actual bus riders. Most transit agencies don’t have the resources to do that just once, and even the ones that do can’t afford to do it for every big project. Nor is it arguably the best way to use scarce agency resources or set up expectations for engagement on future projects.
Instead, what is far more common is what is taking place in Fall River, Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency (MBTA) is building a commuter rail station there, but the city must vote to join the MBTA service area, a state legislative requirement that nods to the local control reforms of the 1970s. One local activist, Nelson Vasquez, launched a campaign called “No to Rail'' because state law would require upzoning the area around the train station, which would “spur market-rate housing” and “removes local control.” A recent public meeting on the subject resulted in “some shouting out of turn about the plans and the expense.” (Because the ballot measure took place during an important election year, the decision of whether to use the train station was ultimately not a question of “community input” but basic democracy. Fall River ended up voting to join the MBTA service area by 78 percent, demonstrating how NIMBY impulses are sometimes quite unpopular even if local meetings on the issue make them appear otherwise.)
The research on who shows up to these types of meetings show little has changed since the 1970s. They are overwhelmingly white homeowners and mostly male (a photo of the MBTA meeting aligns with the research). Usually, there is a microphone at the front of the room and people take turns speaking to the entire room. Often, these are in auditoriums, gymnasiums, or other large event spaces. Doug Gordon, a safe streets activist who has been a member of his local community board in Brooklyn for six years, said the dynamic reminded him not so much of Gandhian humanists, but professional wrestling.
The cost of this new non-planning regime is measured not just in dollars and cents, in houses not built or subway lines stuck on paper. Bent said she knows of cases where “planners are working on safety projects and they go back and they cry in their office because someone has died on a project that they were trying to push forward. And it’s just taking too long.”
Once agencies actually receive feedback, the theory of community feedback butts up against the practice of building better cities. The question becomes, what do you do with it?
On transportation projects, the New York City DOT planner told me it can vary by manager. Project managers can interpret the feedback however they like. Some care more about parking concerns than others. Some are especially attuned to delivery or safety issues. Others, in the words of the planner, simply roll their eyes and say, “Here we go again.”
Even the votes taken by community boards are not necessarily meaningful. On projects like street redesigns, bike lanes or bike corrals, the votes are technically advisory only. If the community board votes against the DOT’s proposed project, the DOT can “roll the board,” a term of art meaning to go against the community board’s wishes and do it anyways. But they rarely do it.
Overall, the most contentious meetings are typically ones about housing and bike lanes, and both subjects often devolve into debates about parking, stretched resources, flooding concerns, gentrification, and overcrowded schools. “There’s something called site appropriateness,” one architect and opponent to a 143-unit development in Austin, Texas told Texas Monthly in a representative comment. “We all believe density should happen in the city, but it’s not a matter of more is more. Sometimes more is less” before adding, “They need to find another property to do their wonderful, beautiful project on.”
This holds for most cities across the country. But the DOT planner said actually listening to the feedback they get clearly conflicts with the agency’s stated goals of making streets safer and reducing carbon emissions. “And so that ends up being: take space and priority away from private automobiles. Usually, that means slowing down motorists, inconveniencing them,” they said, even though these measures can often be unpopular. “What the community says about it doesn’t take away from our goals. So there’s a tension. Like, yeah you want to do the community work, but in some ways, for some projects, like if it’s a safety project because many children keep getting killed at an intersection, it really doesn’t matter. We’re here to save lives.”
When the agency’s goals and project design conflict with community feedback, the agency commits to doing more feedback. The planner called this “engagement inflation,” where more engagement is done with no idea of how much is enough, when the community’s voice is sufficiently heard, or any other metric of success other than more engagement. In practice, it ends up being a form of delay until a local politician or official weighs in.
In Boerne, Texas outside of San Antonio, the local planning board unanimously denied a proposed multi-family development district. The board’s decision was “bolstered by outspoken residents,” according to the San Antonio Express-News. The article said “over 60 individuals” attended the meeting, which was considered “unprecedented.” Boerne has a population of over 19,000 people. “Eventually, what’s going to happen is we’re going to have problems with flooding, we’re going to lose our recharge areas, and traffic will become a nightmare,” one resident said at the meeting. The proposal was for 223 houses.
One other result is agencies will work in the neighborhoods that agree with what they’re doing. On some level, this is exactly what the community feedback model of urban planning was designed to promote. If, say, the East Village overwhelmingly likes traffic calming and protected bike lane projects, and when DOT shows up to community boards and proposes more of them the board votes yes, the system works. Right?
The problem is the city has ample data empirically showing that such an approach leads to demonstrably unequal outcomes, where some neighborhoods are safer and healthier than others. A quick look at the New York City protected bike lane map, for example, demonstrates this. Wealthier areas have safer cycling infrastructure and more traffic calming infrastructure than poorer areas, and therefore the roads are safer. In Philadelphia, a traffic calming redesign of a dangerous road through a majority Black neighborhood went through 10 years of planning and community feedback only to be mothballed at the final minute by a local politician. Even if the project had gone forward, a decade of planning and feedback-gathering to redesign a single street is, in itself, a failure.
But when the city does extensive surveying through methods other than public comment at community hearings, it learns that people in poorer neighborhoods do want safer streets, too. In other words, taking community feedback seriously but doing it poorly leads to the very inequitable, undemocratic outcomes city agencies are tasked with reversing.
On some level, most planners know this, which results in a tension between what they say the meetings are for and what they’re actually for. As one planner for a Midwest transit agency told me, “The purpose of these meetings from the agency standpoint is to gather feedback on a project or initiative from affected individuals. That would be the agency statement. And the reason that we really do them is because we have to.”
How to Fix This
Changing this dynamic so our cities can be more affordable and safe places will require several admissions.
The first is that the way we do public feedback is all wrong, starting with the format of the meetings. A better model than the professional wrestling approach is the workshop-style meeting with small groups discussing plans with professionals. People tend to be more cordial and thoughtful when looking someone else in the face in a small group rather than standing with a microphone at a lectern.
The planners I interviewed generally agreed the workshop model turns down the temperature, but it takes more work and staff resources to do. In some cases, it would also require a change to federal regulations. Transportation projects that receive federal funding, such as subway extensions, new bus rapid transit routes, and light rail lines, must follow federal guidelines for community feedback processes which specifically require the lectern-and-microphone approach. Federal regulations also require transportation agencies to also have similar rules for fare increase proposals—which, in my reporting experience, are often the most hostile and futile meetings—and bus stop removals.
It’s also worth noting that workshops can still result in profound incivility. For example, Meyer’s encounter that resulted in her being called worse than Hitler was at a workshop-style event. But it is perhaps better there wasn’t an audience for it.
The second improvement is about the types of issues people are asked to respond to. Too often, public comment is about a specific policy or project and the meeting is set up in a way that implies, Does anyone have a problem with this? For example, for zoning variances or special permits, most jurisdictions are required to notify nearby property owners (not, it bears mentioning, renters). People who do not care throw the notification in the trash. People who do care show up to the meeting.
Also too often, those policies are obviously not desirable for some subset of the population. Should fares go up? Should bus service be cut? Should you pay more to drive into Manhattan? Should there be construction outside your house for several years? Should parking be removed from your neighborhood? Some number of people are always going to show up and say it shouldn’t be done, even if the agency has already decided to do it.
Instead, the question posed should not be if a thing is done, but how it is done.
“I do think talking to riders is extremely important and something we need to do,” said the transit planner in the Midwest. “I just think we ask the wrong questions. Like you should never ask a random person, or a non-expert, what they think of signal timing or transit signal priority or bus lanes, or even what a bus stop should look like. You should ask them what is important to them. And I feel like we mixed up these two things at some point.”
Similarly, Bent made the case that the feedback agencies get from the community ought to be thought of as another piece of data that goes into the decision-making process of what to do rather than as a potential veto for whatever decision the agency reaches. This may result in a project that “looks different,” Bent said, but that’s “because it probably should have.”
Along these lines, meetings for projects that check a box for a predetermined outcome must stop happening. “I often hear from the opponents of things like bike lanes, Oh, this is preordained,” said Gordon, the Brooklyn community board member. “They often feel like, Well, you guys have made up your mind and you're just here to check a box and it doesn't matter what I say here, you're gonna do it.” And they’re not wrong to think so, because oftentimes, several planners told me, that’s exactly the case. This process only makes people resent public officials, the agency they work for, and the profession they represent. Each time a meeting is held gathering feedback an agency will not consider, it is a backwards step for everyone involved.
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But the biggest change, especially regarding housing construction, is to move away from this project-by-project negotiation between developers and neighborhood busybodies and towards a citywide code that actually reflects what developers can and can’t build.
On this front, Freemark, the Urban Institute researcher, pointed out that “the fundamental problem we have is that the mechanisms for engagement are designed in many cases to punish projects that are better for society.” For example, ripping up hundreds of acres of wilderness in an unincorporated area and building hundreds of single-family homes that would lock in energy-intensive living for decades would typically require zero community input or review, and therefore be done relatively quickly and cheaply. In contrast, tearing down a single-family home in an urban area and building a three-apartment building near a train station would likely require a litany of variances and permits, accompanying a “very extensive review process,” as Freemark put it.
The fact that most development happens independent of any citywide growth plan is visible in other harmful ways too. For example, New York has spent tens of billions of dollars improving the commuter rail system, particularly into Long Island, but there has been no accompanying commitment to build new housing near the train stations to take advantage of that extra capacity. And if a developer would like to build new housing, well, good luck getting those variances.
A more sensible approach would be the creation of a regional growth plan, one that updates zoning and transportation expansion plans together. This plan would be the product of extensive community outreach and feedback, of intense investment to gather as much feedback from as many communities as imaginable, asking them what outcomes they want for the region as a whole. But it would be more like the Census than a community board meeting, happening on a time scale measured in years and not weeks. Metropolitan planning organizations, which are mandated by the federal government and receive federal funding, already do this on a smaller scale, but their plans are non-binding wish lists and generally ignored.
Such a process would be awfully controversial and politically contentious. It would involve a lot of fighting and shouting. And it is not without its own pitfalls. For example, Minneapolis is doing something very similar to this. After years of planning work and hundreds of community meetings, it created the 2040 Plan, which eliminated single-family zoning among other consequential changes. Three groups, including the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, sued to block the plan from taking effect, arguing the plan should have been subject to the state’s environmental review law, which itself requires its own community feedback process. The city argues each housing project should be subject to environmental review individually. The case is winding its way through the courts.
Perhaps most telling of all was when I asked people who regularly participate in these meetings for instances they actually learned something valuable at them. The Midwest planner said for each meeting that takes between six and 12 staff members and hundreds of person-hours of work, they perhaps get one or two useful comments. More proactive outreach, like interviewing bus riders on buses, is far more productive and useful, they said.
A final, telling observation came from several people who received feedback from children, which they find is often far more useful and insightful than what they get from adults. “Kids are less about what they listen to with politics and identity and stuff,” the New York City planner told me. “And they’re more, like, My dad and I do this on the weekends, or I wish we could do that, but I don’t feel safe doing it.”
Meyer, the former MTA customer officer, once received a comment card at a hearing from an 11-year-old in the Bronx. He pointed out that there was no bus stop around his school, which is newer than the bus route. But there were four bus stops that were, as Meyer put it, “in front of nothing.” He asked for the bus stop to be moved. Meyer says it was.
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