Planning Confidential: The Moral Imperative to Build
Posted by Roobs on December 17, 2013
Many planners and developers simply don’t like NIMBYs. NIMBYs, or “Not In My Back Yard” is a term given to individuals and groups who can be counted on to sue, delay, and otherwise obstruct any new community plan or development proposal. Developers are accused of being downright evil. Planners are accused of corruption and being in the pocket of said-evil developers. While there are numerous reasons why a planning policy that favors density and transit, and the developers who build them, are a good thing, there is one reason we, including myself, seem often reluctant to engage in. And that is the moral imperative argument.
I believe there is a moral imperative to construct more housing units and to build upwards, and that development can and will solve some of our deepest rooted urban plagues. Some may say that it can’t or that even such a view is odd, but I don’t see it that way.
To densify our cities is to protect our natural resources on the periphery from an ever encroaching concrete and asphalt. To build more units is to ensure everyone a right to a home; whether an apartment, condominium, or house with a yard. To build, and to build up, ensures that units are arriving at a pace that meets the demand of those looking for that special shelter, while preserving the freedom to choose a style of housing that best suits your needs, desires, and incomes.
To densify is also to embrace our well embedded value of community. Despite the marvelous advances in communication technology, we often face an increasingly isolated society, where we lose the most basic contact with our very own neighbors. Those who insist on halting development and preserving the present or memorializing the past, are perpetuating this unfortunate social reality. But with the construction of new and denser multi-family housing, we can bring society literally and figuratively closer together. We can introduce the population to new people, new cultures, and new ideas. We can seed the foundations of innovations and creative expression through our facilitation of dense urban development. Again, to memorialize the past is to memorialize a path towards ignorance and intolerance.
To those who continue to oppose and demand the stagnation of neighborhoods, I ask that you take responsibility of your wealth. Often times, those who oppose development and densification are those in neighborhoods who already enjoy the riches of a transit-friendly and walkable neighborhood, as well as monetary wealth. And like with the protests over the financial industry, those of us who understand the imperative to densify ask those with great wealth of urbanism to share the burden and responsibility of ensuring others have equal opportunity for the same. To oppose this is to say other do not deserve these benefits. These groups and individuals may say they don’t believe they are against these things, yet it is still never their responsibility. It is always someone else’s, some other neighborhoods responsibility. They are the ones who say they have no problems with density, just that they don’t want it next to them. But again, to oppose density in already transit rich and walkable neighborhoods is to say that new residents should move elsewhere, and that often poor neighborhoods should unfairly shoulder the burden of supply, demand, and displacement.
NIMBY’s often use traffic and preservation as a lightning rod to scare their community to oppose new plans and developments, often calling their stance as in favor of “responsible development”. But to fight urban density in the name of “responsible development” is to mask the underlying effects of these opponents own misguidance.
To suggest that traffic will only worsen as people move in is to suggest that our progress towards a future of less vehicle miles traveled is without merit and foolish. Yet I am sure the same groups advocate for a car-free culture in the name of trendy environmentalism while expecting others to bear what should be a shared responsibility. To fight urban density in the name of “preservation” is to preserve only the status-quo of urbanism-rich – those who enjoy transit friendly and walkable neighborhoods – only for themselves and no one else. Even more offensive of those who use preservation is to fight urban density in the name of preservation of “views”. To oppose on these grounds is to openly side with the “haves” over the “have not’s”, for who actually has the enjoyable view but those living in the hills looking over the rest of us.
As planners, developers, and the interested public, it is important for us to respond to our opponents by asking: Who are they to bring their lack of vision to those of us who see a future where our society lives close to one another and can embrace the benefits of density? Who are they to deny our vision of a neighborhood where a car is merely a tool, rather than a requirement? Those who wish to ignore such a future are limiting the choices we should all have the right to make for ourselves, such as where and how we live. And it is these deniers; these opponents of development and density, not the developers and not the planners, that are limiting the options available and hurting communities everywhere. It is they who are limiting the housing supply and forcing families out of our prized cities. It is they who are forcing the automobile as a requirement and not a choice.
We also need to push back against opponents to preserve our capacity for innovation. Those who decry towers are those who decry the very innovation and ingenuity that brought the neighborhoods and cities they claim to fight for. The imagination and perseverance of our parents and grandparents built our neighborhoods that comprise our great cities, and they built many higher and higher into to the sky. They built density unknowing of the benefits we know today, like health and the environment. Instead, they built out of a great sense of hope and possibility. They built to test the limits of our technological imagination and to prove to all other that it can be done and that we were the ones who did it. And it is this imagination that is at risk by those who seek to stay our urban form in mediocrity.
Development is a moral imperative. We should not embrace the stagnation advocated by these NIMBY groups. We should embrace density and increase housing for the middle and working class, provide more options for mobility, and to help us move away from self-isolation that only comes with an outdated urban form. We should not give into the fear of losing what we have, but embrace our own capacity for genius and innovation by creating new homes that build on the strengths of our existing communities, and capturing the benefits of the future. We should never give into the idea that we cannot; that we cannot accomplish our goals or our dreams. So as planners, developers, and as proponents of density, we should continue to advocate for and build our way out of this fog that plagues our cities with abhorrent rents and cracking streets. Let us once again embrace our own capacity to believe we are a great people and that we can still accomplish great things.
This is the 6th post in the series: Planning Confidential: Everything you thought about planning is true. Click the link for an index of other Planning Confidential posts.
Roobs is a land use planner in Los Angeles. He received his Master’s in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA with concentrations in Urban Design and Transportation. He received his Bachelors from UC Berkeley in Legal Studies and Sociology.