In great cities, large and small, you can’t see what is almost certainly there: one helluva lot of ‘No.’ As in application declined, we're looking for a different kind of development. There are sympathetic no’s, ALLCAPS NO’s, and agonizing debate-into-the-night no’s. You have to be willing to say no to the bad if you want your city to be built with the good, especially with the development incentives rigged as they are today.
Most of us are very uncomfortable with no. We would much rather have a bias to yes, save time and make someone’s day. Sometimes cities are so are overwhelmed by the need to house, move, and employ people that they take what’s on the table with some amendments here and there rather than doing the hard work to envision and solicit what would be best. And so you get Chuck’s suburban growth Ponzi Scheme.
My hometown has long been a city divided. There is a strong developer lobby with a great deal of influence on the Old Boys Club portion of City Council. The bread and butter of the developers in question is your typical suburban fare (i.e. not the ingredients for a Strong Town). Every new subdivision would have fierce critics because no one wanted a cul-de-sac to replace the forest or farm next door. Development boosters would decry these critics as “NIMBY, at it again.” It became a toxic environment in which you were lumped in with: Group A, the NIMBYs; or Group B, the Forest Choppers.
Eventually, the power on council shifted to a new group of councillors who held more nuanced and informed views on where and how the city should grow. Slowly, they gained a slim majority of seats and Council began to vote ‘no’ to the status quo. Further, after a city-wide consultation process, the new municipal Official Plan calls for the more compact, mixed-use urban formula that we hold so dear.
Sure enough, no good deed goes unpunished. Commenters in newspapers, social media, and blogs call this progressive group of councillors and their ilk anti-everything growth killers. “They'll say no to anything.”
Defenders shoot back, “Well, you’re just a brainwashed pro-development bozo. What now?” But that’s exactly how this all falls apart, with Group A and Group B, assigned by assumption and forever at odds. How can a city grow stronger together in an environment like that?
A friendquaintance of mine co-authored this great book that a twenty-something in your life might appreciate. It’s about making tough decisions - charting your life and your career against a core set of values and somehow making it pay. Of all the advice Billy and Dev share in Making Good, I return one piece in particular almost every day. They know it’s hard but necessary to say no to some people or opportunities. What makes it much easier is remembering that every time you say no to something, you are saying yes to something else. For example, no I will not take that evening coffee meeting because I am saying yes to a nice long walk to clear my mind.
This works for cities too. Maybe it’s no, we will not build that exurban subdivision, because we are saying yes to new housing and a restaurant on this infill site.
It’s not a no to development, it’s a yes to the kind of development that will build us a Strong Town.
The question follows, what kind of development is that? As this readership is well aware, there are a few principles we can follow but beyond that, it's a flurry of hunches and unknowns. In these situations, we usually turn to professionals - planners, architects, engineers, the works. I believe professionals can add a lot of value (full disclosure: I recently finished a Master’s in planning and hope to become a professional myself), but I also believe in DIY approaches like Neighborhoods First. The trial-and-error mindset behind Neighborhoods First lets a community test hunches and discover unknowns with low-risk projects, paving the wave for a chorus of 'Yes.' On a larger scale, the SmartCode by the Congress for the New Urbanism could be a useful tool. By working known principles of good urban design into local code, the SmartCode could help make yes-worthy projects the standard.
I’m writing this now in theory because I have not yet tried either but hope to soon. Over the next couple months, I’ll be creating a discussion paper with a vision for my current city. In the spirit of offering ‘things to say yes to,’ I’ll be sure to include low-risk trial ideas for projects and sites.
Here's what I hope will happen: once armed with lots of opportunities to say yes, Group A and B will dissolve. They will instead become individuals that maybe have different preferences, but probably all want a Strong Town to call home. We'll try this and that according to our 'Yes List.' There will be some skepticism and healthy debate but eventually we'll figure out what works. Maybe then we can abandon the red herring categorization of pro- or anti- development and instead get tough on questions of when, what, where, and how should we build next?