Better Public Engagement

The idea of “public engagement” before new facilities are constructed was implemented as a necessary corrective to some very bad “urban renewal” practices of the postwar years. But Andrés Duany, a pioneering new urbanist, thinks it’s become a sea of dysfunctional NIMBYism in an interview with Diana Lind (via Lydia DePillis).

I think he correctly sees that the problem with community engagement isn’t so much the engagement as the community. When someone proposes building something, that “impacts” “the community” on a variety of levels and for a variety of definitions of both “impact” and “community.” There are lots of things such that the reasonable household would (a) prefer not to live adjacent to it and (b) prefer not to live in a city where none are available. Just about anything is a potential nuisance, and people are loss-averse, but a town that never undertakes new infrastructure building is a disaster. I’m not sure his proposal for fixing this is totally right, but it’s worth thinking about:

Conventional public participation makes the mistake of privileging the neighbors, the people who live within a half-mile of the given proposal. So it becomes extremely difficult to, say, locate a school or an infill project. While democracy doesn’t need a great number of voters to function well, it does require a full cross-section to participate. That is the source of its collective intelligence. You can’t confuse neighbors with the community as a whole.

We propose using the jury pool or the phone book to invite a random group, which is then understood to be apart from the self-interested neighbors, just as the developer or the school board are acknowledged as vested interests. The neighbors must be seen as vested interests as well.

He also does a brief amount of much-needed pushback against the over-sentimentalization of China’s “get things done” approach: “It’s much easier to get things done there. But they’re also making terrible mistakes. The outcome of their planning is generally awful and provides evidence that you need some sort of public participation.”


And to drill down a little, one of the big problems of the Moses-era megaprojects that led to today’s go-slow processes is that the decision-making tended to be incredibly corrupt. Projects were undertaken primarily because they facilitated the dispensing of construction contracts rather than because they made sense on the merits. To put it mildly, this is not a problem the Chinese have solved.