Leverage and “No Growthers”

by Dom Nozzi

December 20, 1999

There is a national epidemic of people, over the past few decades, who oppose all forms of development. There are not only NIMBYs = not in my back yard. There are also CAVEs = citizens against virtually everything, NIMTOOs = not in my term of office, BANANAs = build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything, and my personal favorite: NOPEs = not on planet earth.

Clearly, much of this opposition has arisen because, since approximately WWII, we’ve developed our neighborhoods and cities to make cars happy instead of people. Suburban sprawl is primarily fueled by our single-minded efforts to make cars happy. And sprawl gives us horrific government and household financial crises, massive environmental destruction and loss of farmland in our outlying areas, declining and unsafe “in-town” areas, visual blight, excessive dependency on our cars, loss of civic pride, distrust of (and anger towards) government and developers, hopelessness and despair. It is no wonder that we are a nation infested with a “no growth” attitude. And it is no surprise that our costly and ugly development patterns make such an attitude justifiable.

The problem is that a “no growth” attitude is ultimately unsustainable, since you cannot stop growth — you can merely push it into other areas.

Unfortunately, these “other areas” are usually the outlying natural areas and farms surrounding our cities. After all, outlying land is usually less costly and more abundant than in the city, and there are fewer NIMBYs in outlying areas. Perhaps most disturbing is that development of these outlying areas inevitably leads to the destruction of vast amounts of relatively sensitive natural areas, guarantee excessive dependency on the car, make walking and transit nearly impossible, destroy any sense of neighborliness, and give us unbearable service and household costs.nimby-web-2

Today, we seem to have a new problem emerging — or at least a problem becoming more sophisticated. Increasingly, “no growthers” have found potent new leverage to achieve their agenda. The new leverage is now primarily coming from environmentalists, and elected officials who lack the courage to be leaders in the face of emotional, angry NIMBYs.

Environmental Leverage

Environmentalists are understandably disturbed by the destruction of wildlife and habitat by most conventional development, and usually work to stop any development — no matter its design or location. But environmentalists must pick their battles. Is it wise to burn out the troops by fighting to save every single tree in every development proposal, especially when doing so encourages developers to find less contentious outlying areas, where development will harm more important and more sensitive natural areas? Shouldn’t environmentalists understand that excessive dependence on car travel is perhaps the most profound threat to the environment (air pollution, water pollution, sprawl, etc., are mostly due to the car), and that fighting in-town development will push more new development to areas where it is impossible to travel except by car?

Most of our project-specific environmental battles have been won. We have strong water, air, and tree rules. The most important environmental, economic and quality of life threat is not the smokestack. It is car-oriented sprawl into our outlying areas.

It seems to me that the priority for environmentalists is to slow sprawl to outlying areas, and to create cities with a wealth of transportation choices and quality of life — a quality of life that reduces the desire to flee the city. An effective way to do that is to return to the age of designing our in-town locations to make people instead of cars happy.

Elected Officials Leverage

The second form of leverage is the elected official who lacks courage and leadership, which seems to be another epidemic in America. Here, the “no growther” can realize success because fearful elected officials are often anxious — in the face of angry citizens opposed to a development project — to find a rationale to deny development approval. A handy way to find such reasons without appearing to be lacking in courage, or appearing to be “caving in” to a hostile group of citizens, is to simply state that you would support the in-town development if only it was not going to remove trees. Or harm a wetland.

Ultimately, these are fertile times for the “no growther.” People understandably assume that any new development will be bad, given what has happened over the past several decades. Environmentalists are understandably enraged by environmental destruction. The level of anger and hysteria has reached such a fever pitch that we understandably find ourselves with elected officials who live in fear of such strong emotions. It is a vicious cycle that is contributing to sprawl and a decline of our quality of life.

These new forms of leverage allow the “no growther” to be increasingly successful in stopping in-town development. But to the extent that the “no growther” is successful, our fate will be to suffer a decline in quality of life and a loss of sustainability because outlying sprawl will accelerate and our in-town locations will continue to stagnate.

What is needed is the courage and will to incrementally move Back To The Future so that we again design for people instead of cars. Inevitably, such an approach will restore trust, confidence and respect for our elected officials and our developers.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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