Traditional Neighborhoods Without Traditional NIMBYism

Debra Stein

While citizen opposition to new towns and major traditional neighborhood development (TND) subdivisions may be traditional, it isn't inevitable. By crafting and implementing a careful community outreach program, citizen resistance can be substantially reduced while cultivating supporters needed to win project approval.

Not all NIMBY opposition is alike. There are four major types of opposition to TND projects, and engaging in the wrong type can actually create more problems. That's why it's important to identify the particular cause of citizen opposition and target your outreach campaign to specifically address those needs.

Opposition from Misinformation
A significant amount of opposition to TND projects is based on misperceptions, lack of information, and exaggerated fear of project impacts. Opposition based on lack of information can be minimized by providing clear, credible data about a project. Most public information is unilateral in nature: the builder sends message to the public in a one-way stream outward, generally using tools such as newsletters, direct mail, web pages or advertising. High-quality public information materials can effectively educate citizens about projects facts and convey the excitement and lifestyles values of a project.

Some developers believe that the most time-and cost-efficient way to educate the public about a TND project is to host a massive community meeting. However, enormous public meetings are one of the least effective ways to reduce opposition arising from lack of information. In general, homeowner association meetings or community workshops aren't designed to convey a lot of data; they're designed to convey a lot of opinion. At their worst, huge community meetings introduce potential opponents to each other, allow them to hear and adopt each other's agendas, and encourage spotlight-hungry activists to stake out irrevocable positions in front of their constituents. From a public policy perspective, big public meetings are usually ineffective ways to address community information needs: a large audience usually has too many issues to address in-depth, and many people feel uncomfortable confessing their ignorance or confusion in front of a crowd. When public information is a top priority, don't rely exclusively on huge public meetings to get messages out.

Some additional words of caution about public information: it is not a panacea for all forms of NIMBY opposition; it can only reduce opposition based on lack of information. If opposition arises from some other cause, then disgorging data can actually create problems. It can substantiate opponents' vague fears, create new issues of concerns and notify people who were otherwise unaware of the issues or uninvolved in the debate. Moreover, public information is inherently condescending. When sending neighbors an invitation urging them to, "Come to the meeting so we can tell you what we're doing," citizens often interpret that invitation as a declaration that a developer only has a patronizing obligation to share plans after-the-fact. A better way to get neighbors to a meeting is to ask them what they think about the proposal, and arrange a meeting to listen to them.

Opposition from Relational Needs
A significant amount of NIMBY opposition arises from unmet relational needs.

  • Saving Face: It is impossible to overemphasize the need for neighbors to "save face." When a community member feels ignored or pushed around, that activist is likely to go on the warpath simply to prove to the world that he really is a force to be reckoned with. When meeting with this type of person, developers should show neighbors how much they respect them by making eye contact, referring to individuals by name and asking citizens to give their opinions.

    Self-designated community leaders often feel they have to justify their leadership roles to their constituents, so offer activists a carefully-controlled spotlight rather than forcing them to build their own, more damaging soapboxes. Instead of telling neighbors that they "have to" believe what the experts say, show respect for citizens' intelligence by encouraging them to confirm for themselves that the conclusions are correct. Since people who change their minds look shamefully inconsistent, help hostile neighbors back down from their prior protests by offering a face-saving excuse for their lack of consistency.

  • Liking: People may not oppose a project because they don't like it; they may oppose a project because they don't like the developer. While most people feel uncomfortable hurting someone they know well, they tend to feel much less guilty abusing a faceless target. Developers should give people a chance to know them better by sharing personal information about themselves, their background and their goals. In particular, make a lot of eye contact with citizens, especially with potential opponents who are trying to avoid personal interaction.

    We like people who do nice things for us. In America, something called the "Rule of Reciprocity" demands that we repay any favor we receive, even if we didn't ask for the favor or we dislike the person who provided the favor. When NIMBY neighbors are at their nastiest, developers should be at their nicest, because small courtesies and favors will create internal and external pressure for citizens to reciprocate.

    We like people associated with nice things, and we are biologically programmed to like the people we are with and to agree with the ideas we hear when we are eating and drinking. Never host a meeting without providing food and drinks, and remember, a neighbor who accepts this generosity is then compelled by the Rule of Reciprocity to repay it with more courteous or compliant behavior.

    We like people who are similar to us, but men and women look for similarity in different areas. Men tend to like people with similar backgrounds, interests and experiences. By comparison, women tend to like people with similar values, preferences, or priorities.

  • Credibility: Almost one-half of a developer's credibility comes from his or her perceived expertise. When technical facts are at issue, then the highly trained technical specialist we conventionally associate with the word "expert" is usually viewed as the qualified information source. However, when opinions, values, and preferences are at stake, neighbors generally believe that their peers are the "real" experts. Developers should stress their technical knowledge when speaking about verifiable facts, but emphasize similarity with the audience when talking about lifestyle arguments or issues associated with community character.

    More than 30 percent of a speaker's credibility results from the impression of honesty, and most signals of honesty and dishonesty are conveyed non-verbally. A speaker who keeps his or her hands exposed and relaxed will usually be perceived as honest. We are quite suspicious of people who won't look us in the eye, which is why speakers who make a lot of eye contact are usually perceived as being honest.

    There really is something called "the Pinocchio Syndrome." Lying causes delicate nerves in the face to tingle, so you can inadvertently send messages of dishonesty by rubbing your eyes, scratching your nose, covering your lips. In general, keep your hands away from your face.

Opposition from Moral Conflict
For traditional economic moralists, progress and change are morally good, and any environmental impacts are strictly incidental. Environmental moralists, by comparison, believe that preserving the quality of life is more important than increasing the quantity of life, and that preservation of the environment is itself an independent principle. NIMBY neighbors often see themselves as the only line of defense between the morally corrupt economic goals of the developer and the morally righteous environmental priorities of the community.

  • Shared Values: For starters, there may not be a conflict of values at all. If there's agreement regarding the moral commitment to protect the environment, developers should say so. If credibility is challenged, offer a business rationale for your position, such as, "We're going to preserve the wetlands in order to comply with federal regulations."
  • Right vs. Right: When opponents are characterizing a TND proposal as a battle between right versus wrong, developers can show that, in fact, it's at most a case of right versus right. Yes, preservation of the environment is important, but how does that principle rank in relationship to neighbors' other values, such as affirmative action, property rights, compassion or fairness? The underlying validity of an opponent's ethics does not need to be challenged; merely getting neighbors to confirm that they hold other values or interests can help single-focus opponents broaden the scope of their project considerations.
  • Right vs. Wrong: So what happens if there's a genuine conflict of right versus wrong? Do differing values always lead to irresolvable conflict? When land use controversies appear to be grounded on ideological conflict, the key is to focus the parties on their mutual interests, not their non-mutual ethics.

Opposition from Conflict of Interests
Citizens have a "positive interest" in gaining new benefits they don't currently enjoy: additional tax revenues, new jobs, more housing, new parks, a better civic image. Most people who support TND proposals do so because they're excited about the new benefits that can come from responsible development.

By comparison, project opponents are motivated by their "negative interest" in protecting the status quo from change. Project opponents like their existing lifestyle and aren't willing to suffer more traffic or a loss of the community's rural character. Note that positive interests generally relate to hope for a better quantity of life, while negative interests are driven by fear of damage to neighbors' existing quality of life.

People are much more likely to circle the wagons to protect what they've already got than to risk their current quality of life for vague future benefits. Developers need to make future benefits as credible and certain as possible if they want neighbors to possibly give up the benefits they currently enjoy. Don't just state that the project will fit into the community, prepare a detailed rendering really showing the project's beauty and quality. The project should be characterized in ways that emphasize how it will protect existing benefits ("This project is the only feasible way to ensure the old barn isn't demolished") rather than describing it in terms of how it will create new benefits ("The old barn will be turned into a new community center.")

The most common types of conflict resolution seen in the land use world are persuasion and negotiation.

Persuasion. Persuasion involves convincing opponents to accept that this project will not adversely affect their interests. Persuasive exchanges can disclose opinions neighbors were unaware of, introduce new information, reveal biases or unreasonable presumptions and possibly lead to concessions on minor issues. If developers can't convince an anti-growth activist to abandon his current beliefs, they may nonetheless be able to persuade other neighbors observing the dialogue that they are right and their opponent is wrong.

In a perfect world, you could rely entirely on rational persuasion to get your points across. Unfortunately, few neighbors have the time, the interest, or the intelligence to rationally evaluate all the facts. Rather than risking information overload, most citizens will engage in peripheral evaluation, focusing on the external context rather than the internal content of the developer's statements.

Project opponents often engage in emotional persuasion intended prejudice listeners and encourage gut-level but irrelevant reactions. Swept away on a wave of raw emotion, citizens may overlook the fact that opponents are making irrational statements. Developers should keep in mind that the underlying purpose of a personal attack is to goad them into demonstrating what awful people they really are. They should focus on responding rationally to the manipulative emotional attack.

Negotiation. Negotiation isn't about convincing neighbors that the project won't injure their interests. It's about getting the best deal at the lowest possible cost. Compromise comes into play when different parties make different demands about the same thing. Each party gives up relatively equal amounts of expectation or makes comparable sacrifices to reach a middle-ground solution that neither fully satisfies nor fully injures any party. Conflicts that involve numbers--square footage, acreage, units, heights, and so on--are the most likely candidates for compromise.

King Solomon notwithstanding, not all outcomes are readily divisible. If people are fighting about whether or not a piece of land should remain as undeveloped open space, there simply isn't a middle ground. Conflicts such as these are usually resolved by exchanging concessions rather than by trying to reach a compromise. When exchanging concessions, developers concede on an issue they don't really care about in order to gain something from neighbors they really want, and vice versa. There are three types of concessions to consider during negotiation:

  • The proposal can be modified to remove the real or perceived threat to neighbors' interests. The height of buildings can be reduced, for example, or senior housing units built instead of proposed low-income units. Project modifications often involve physical changes related to density, height, acreage, use and so on.
  • If it isn't possible to modify the project to avoid negative impacts, those effects can be reduced to less offensive levels through the incorporation of mitigation measures. Like project modifications, mitigation measures are primarily aimed at preserving the status quo.
  • If negative interests cannot be addressed through project modification or impact mitigation, it may be possible to appeal to neighbors' positive interests by offering counter-balancing benefits: some new feature, amenity, or program so desirable that it offsets the negative impacts of the project. Common benefits often include more public open space, recreational facilities, job creation and community facilities such as child care centers or senior centers.

Three Steps to Building Support
It often isn't enough to simply keep a cap on opposition. Overt expressions of community support for the project are often needed. Supporters may be needed to influence the opinions of reluctant decision-makers, or perhaps officials are only willing to approve the project if there's a strong public record to head off accusations of backroom dealing. If the project is in a Western state with a populist heritage of referendum or initiative, then voter support may be important to reduce the risk of a later election battle.

  1. Identifying Potential Supporters. There are five different audiences of potential supporters, and the first step of and the first step of any support development program is to identify who can be most profitably tapped for assistance:
    • Direct beneficiaries are those people who will make money on the project: the developer, investors, construction contractors, construction workers, and so on.
    • Indirect beneficiaries gain from general improvements in the local economy arising from the project. Local merchants, for example, can benefit from an increase in pedestrian activity from new residents, while tax-base proponents such as Friends of the Public Library or the local firefighters' union will benefit from the increased tax revenues generated by the project.
    • Project users are another major audience of potential supporters. Whether it's potential buyers of your new housing units or tenants of future commercial or retail space, users make highly credible witnesses.
    • Special interest groups either tend to generally support any kind of development (e.g. Chamber of Commerce, builders' association) or to support one particular component of the project (e.g. child care advocates).
    • Finally, support can be drawn from people who will suffer relational consequences if they don't help: the developer's friends, relatives, employees, vendors and contractors whose future relationship with the builder depends upon helping out today.
  2. Recruiting Supporters. Within a development context, a community member who signs a petition, fills out an endorsement card, or even attends a neighborhood coffee is substantially more likely to testify in favor of a project than someone who never makes an initial commitment. Before asking potential supporters to agree to a big request, it's best to get a "foot in the door" with a much smaller request. If neighbors agree to some minor, painless request such as signing a support petition, then when a developer asks the supporter to attend a hearing, they will feel pressure to comply with the later request or else look shamefully inconsistent. Having once agreed to the initial request, the supporter will start seeing himself as a cooperative, helpful, and compliant person, and as someone who actually cares about the project and takes action.
  3. Mobilizing for the Hearing. The "foot-in-the-door" technique worked to get an initial commitment of support. Now, it's time to use the "door-in-the-face" approach when it comes time to ask a supporter to take a big action. The door-in-the-face technique is initiated by opening with a large request that's expected to be rejected ("Will you attend the hearing on Tuesday and testify in favor of the project?"). If the large request is accepted, congratulations. If it's refused, then retreat to a smaller request ("Then will you call the county supervisor and let her know you support the project?"). By comparison to the first solicitation, the second request will seem so small and reasonable that it will be easy to agree to. The supporter will see that the developer has made a significant concession, thus triggering the Rule of Reciprocity and inclining the supporter to repay the concession.

Dealing with NIMBY neighbors mean more than just reacting when residents start protesting; it means planning ahead to anticipate and avoid community opposition, and it means actively recruitment and mobilizing citizens in support of your project. A proactive and well planned community outreach plan can help developers build a traditional neighborhood development without traditional NIMBY opposition.