NIMBY psychology at Harvard University February 2013

 

NIMBY psychology comes to Harvard — from Australia!

 

February was an exciting month for me. I spent it teaching in the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard University and giving lectures and classes at MIT and Tufts University.

 

It was exceptionally cold for a person who lives in the sub-tropics. A huge blizzard dumped 20 inches of show on Boston days after I arrived.

 

 
Harvard in February. Brrr!

 

The highlight of my month-long visit was a   lunch-time lecture for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University on 22 February.

 

I spoke about the relationships between environmental psychology and community resistance to housing density increases to an audience in the iconic Gund Hall, which houses the Graduate School of Design.

 

See: https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/#/events/what-s-psychology-got-to-do-with-nimby-with-wendy-sarkissian.html

 

Gund Hall, Harvard University

 

NIMBY

 

Throughout the Western world and especially in Australia, we are seeing strong initiatives to increase housing density to achieve sustainability initiatives. Paralleling these types of initiatives are concerns about the social impacts of higher density housing, confirmed by a widespread Australian research and a recent visit to Canada. Even in Hong Kong, there are community concerns about housing density increases. Where governments have mandated housing density increases, the results have not always been positive.

 

The much-lauded CityPlan community engagement process in Vancouver, Canada, resulted in a strong support for housing density in the late 1990s and early years of this century, (with planners believing that they had converted NIMBY to YIMBY (“Yes in My Back Yard”). However, currently a strong community backlash in Vancouver reveals that these gains were short-lived. After tens of millions of dollars spent on community engagement about density increases, residents and others are strongly opposing further housing density increases.

 

In many Western cities, the early optimism of what community engagement could deliver with respect to housing density increases has faded. The irony is that success in this arena is much more important that it was in earlier decades as the pressures of Peak Oil and climate change begin to be felt more powerfully by communities and governments.

 

So, if density increases are needed and resistance is increasing, what is the answer? What really is at the core of peoples’ concerns? Which approaches might work to engage communities with the issues of housing density?

 

What if we could achieve our sustainability and housing density goals without causing community unrest, dissatisfaction – even uproar?

 

Could communities respond positively to density increases under the appropriate conditions?

 

I believe that all of that is possible. But we must understand more about the psychology of housing to be effective.

 

We need to appreciate why governments must continue to campaign for increased housing density. It’s as though these two initiatives are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Yet they are connected by the very concerns that seem to place proponents of density increases at loggerheads with community members.

 

Caring

 

The issue that unites them is caring. Governments who care about the future of communities are alert to the many signs that automobile dependence and urban sprawl are expensive and ecologically unsustainable artefacts of a bygone era. We can no longer afford low-density suburbs. (Actually, we never could but we thought we could.)

 

Similarly, community members who care about the future of their communities are concerned that clumsy and ill-considered initiatives will make neighbourhoods unliveable cauldrons of noise, traffic congestion, parking problems. They will have no environmental quality. Some even say: `the slums of the future’.

So, if everyone cares, where’s the problem and what is the secret?

 

A key to understanding these conflicts (occurring in our communities today) is to understand more about housing. It’s not merely `product’, as some developers say. It’s more than a `commodity’ as economists would say. For some, it’s everything: a haven, a nest, protection, security”¦ many qualities that have little or nothing to do with density, tenure or whether one’s name is on the mortgage document”¦

 

Home is a deeply archetypal concept. Humans aer animals and, like other animals, we are hard-wired to protect our territory, the “territorial core” of our home. It’s complicated and that’s partly why people’s responses to a threat to their housing often get so very `complicated’. Our Homing Instinct is a deep-seated desire to protect what is personal, precious and `home’.

 

The psychology of place and housing

 

 

Here’s a link to the Harvard lecture and the PowerPoint presentation:

 

https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/event/what%E2%80%99s-psychology-got-do-nimby-exploring-deeper-meanings-community-resistance-proposed-housing

 

Social planning was having a good month!   The lecture was also picked up by the real estate blog, The Fifth Estate: Our Planet, Our Real Estate:

 

https://www.thefifthestate.com.au/archives/45397/

 

Here’s the lecture in a Word document:

 

Sarkissian Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies lecture 22 February 2013_revised for web

 

Many sincere thanks to Eric Belsky and his colleagues of the Joint Center for generous support and hospitality and to Professor Ann Forsyth of the GSD.

 

“Realising the Revolution”: Medium-Density Housing in Queensland by Bridget Rogan and Fran Toomey

First posted June 8, 2012 – 3:21 pm

 

Two Brisbane Planners Call for a “Revolutionary” Approach to Increasing Housing Density:

Realising the Revolution?

 

 

In a recent paper to the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) Queensland conference, Bridget Rogan and Fran Toomey of the Council of Mayors (SEQ) presented the results of work in progress on the strategic importance of medium-density housing in their region.

Their paper, “Liveable Compact Cities: Realisation of the Revolution”, is very helpful in understanding the reasons behind the strong resistance to medium-density housing in Queensland (and elsewhere).

 

https://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/3246

 

What are they saying?

 

Deconstructing this paper – and especially its very precise and specific language – can offer guidance for planners and policy makers about how to proceed with density increases.

 

And how not to proceed.

 

In their paper, Rogan and Toomey (2011) call for the “realisation of the revolution”.

 

So what is a `revolution’?

 

a forcible overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.

Or at the very least “¦ a paradigm shift.

 

 

While they are not explicit about what the `revolution’ might be, it is clear that the revolution is a revolution in land-use planning with the battle for medium-density housing at the forefront of the conflict. The project they report on, the Liveable Compact Cities Project, sponsored by the Federal Government, explores policy, practice and the housing market. It aims to increase housing affordability.

 

But the real revolution that is to be realised is not housing affordability per se. It is a massive project to increase density in housing in Southeast Queensland.

 

The Nub of the Issue

 

Here, encoded in what appears to be an innocent conference paper, is the nub of the issue confronting us today as planners and policy makers. While on the one hand, governments tell us that here is nothing `revolutionary’ about higher density housing, on the other hand, their language publicly promotes it to “realise the revolution’.

 

This is exactly what local people and people in low-density communities are afraid of: “the revolution”.

 

Do people want the `revolution’?

 


A wide body of research confirms that local people, when they consider their housing and public spaces do not want “the revolution”. They want homes in suburbs like everyone else.

 

The Hall of Shame

 

They do not want avant-garde or `revolutionary’ architecture or parks and open spaces like the shockingly `revolutionary’ Parc de la Villette in Paris, with sculptures, structures, places and “community art” they cannot relate to.

 

The American Project for Public Spaces has inducted that `revolutionary’ park into their “Hall of Shame” for Public Spaces and its list of “the worst parks in the world”.

(See https://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_place_id=369)

 

Parc de la Villette: Realising the Revolution?

 

Rather than “realising the revolution”, planners and policy makers would be wise to consider what is not revolutionary about good medium-density housing.

 

How we can re-interpret the tried-and-true, successful even archetypal elements of housing design and the design of the spaces between buildings to achieve a high level of `congruence’ or `fit’ between the residents and their housing environments.

 

This need not be a battle or a conflict.

 

Definitely not a `revolution’.

 

What works and what doesn’t work are well known. Less well known are the complex dynamics of humans’ relationships with their domestic environments.

 

A very positive response to my paper on 22 February 2013 to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University indicates that rather than a   harsh,   top-down, “imposing” and perhaps “revolutionary” approach advocated by activists and others in positions of planning authority, such as Bridget Rogan and Fran Toomey, a much gentler and more sensitive “psychological” approach could yield better results.

 

A ‘revolutionary’ approach will only inflame NIMBY-ite responses and is completely counter-productive.

 

See:   Joint Center for Housing Studies

 

https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/event/what%E2%80%99s-psychology-got-do-nimby-exploring-deeper-meanings-community-resistance-proposed-housing

 

 

The Fifth Estate: Our Planet, Our Real Estate

 

https://www.thefifthestate.com.au/archives/45397/

 

To contact these authors and hear more about the revolution they propose:

 

Council of Mayors (SEQ)

Level 6, Hitachi Building,
239 George Street, BRISBANE QLD 4001
PO Box 12995, GEORGE STREET QLD 4003
Tel 07 3040 3460
Fax 07 3211 5889