Explaining opposition to new development

Megan McArdle sums up why people are opposed to new development:

But most of us do not want to say “I want to live around people who consume the same stuff I consume”, or “I don’t want to live near poor people”, or “I would rather not have more families in town because they’re just going to be a financial burden on me”, or “I think it would be better if you had fewer alternatives to shopping at my store”, so we talk about . . . noise, congestion, and traffic.

I think she is right here: the real concerns are not the typical NIMBY reasons but rather larger issues about who or what should be allowed in the neighborhood/community and how it is going to negatively affect the particular things the resident likes in the community.

But I wonder if McArdle is describing typical NIMBY behavior of middle and upper class residents but not all circumstances of opposition to development. Let me suggest a few interesting examples:

1. I have spent time researching the story of how the Cabrini-Green high-rises were torn down (see more recent stories here and here). In this case, HUD and the City of Chicago wanted to tear down the high-rises, displacing the public housing residents. While an average observer might wonder why the residents would want to stay, they mounted a spirited effort to fight the plans and at least get the chance to have a say in the proceedings. McArdle was primarily describing situations where wealthier residents were afraid of people who might “lower the standards” of the neighborhood, the public housing residents thought being displaced was a worse option despite the troubles at Cabrini-Green.

2. There are a lot of gentrification situations where lower-class residents resist efforts from wealthier residents to move in and “improve” the neighborhood. Of course, the improvement efforts tend to price out other residents and make the neighborhood into something new. Again, this is a situation where the neighborhood might be improved (think of the justification of blight for clearing “slums” after World War II) in the eyes of some but existing residents don’t always desire this.

What I think is different in these two situations is the power of the residents who are resisting the change. In middle and upper class neighborhoods, NIMBYism often works: residents have the clout and the taxing dollar potential to make noise and gain concessions. These residents are trying to keep the bar high in their communities and don’t want others to mess that up. In other words, they purchased into the community and would like to freeze the community in place. In lower-class neighborhoods, residents may band together but their concerns are often swept aside or perhaps tolerated but ultimately ignored. While outsiders are claiming to offer improvements, these improvements are outweighed by other more pressing concerns like whether there are other communities the displaced residents can live in.

What unites all of these situations might be resistance to change. When new developments come along, people start suspicious, particularly if the proposal comes from a group that is unknown in the neighborhood. This is why a step in teardown situations in many communities is to have the people who want to build the bigger house meet with existing neighbors so they can all hear each other. Even better, you could give existing residents a stake in the decision, letting them help shape the proposal so the new development is less of an imposition and more of a community project. (Of course, this doesn’t guarantee approval.) Change may be inevitable in all developed settings in the long run but it can be done in such a way so that it feels like an organic part of the neighborhood’s growth rather than a startling addition.

At the same time, the ability of a community to resist change and ultimately prevail against a development proposal or even become part of the decision-making process is strongly affected by race, social class, and power.

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