I was reading an article in The Atlantic a couple of days ago Community Input is Bad, Actually by Jerusalem Demsas. In it she argues that the process of community input to development projects is fundamentally flawed because:
“It’s biased toward the status quo and privileges a small group of residents who for reasons that range from the sympathetic to the selfish don’t want to allow projects that are broadly useful.”
She describes how the American legal and planning system is full of points where communities can object to development of many types: housing, rapid mass transit (public transport), renewable energy, and others. Environmental and planning regulations result in extensive and expensive reports and mitigations, delays and sometimes the cancellation of projects that are in line with government’s priorities for more renewable power, better public transport and more affordable or social housing — all desirable social goods.
However, public bodies, such as government agencies and local government, are required to consult with the public to get their views on proposals that affect communities, and to take those views into account. In my experience, councillors take this responsibility seriously. They are committed to representing their communities, to know what those communities think about issues, and to make decisions that take those views into account. Whenever our local council is consulting on its annual or long-term plans, councillors encourage us to make submissions to help guide their decision-making.
The big flaw, in my view, is the lack of ‘reach’ into the community during consultations. As Jerusalem Demsas says, one of the problems is we are only talking to those who are here now.
“The community-input process is disastrous for two broad reasons. First, community input is not representative of the local population. Second, the perception of who counts as part of an affected local community tends to include everyone who feels the negative costs of development but only a fragment of the beneficiaries.”
We also tend to talk only to adults, and children are very much an afterthought, or considered too hard, or not serious enough, to seriously consider. The current debate over whether 16 and 17 year-olds should be allowed to vote in New Zealand shows that many opinionated adults don’t respect the views and decisions of young people. We also have many other people in our communities who are very disengaged from public or civic life, and are largely powerless
“…the fundamental problem wasn’t lack of community input; it was a lack of political power among disadvantaged groups. Making it easier for people to lodge their disagreements doesn’t change the distribution of power; it only amplifies the voices of people who already have it.”
Unfortunately, we see this in our local community. The council is working with some developers to rezone some land on the outskirts of our village to allow up to 1000 new houses to be built. This will have a huge impact on our community, and many residents see it as bad. There is no doubt that there are serious environmental, social and transport challenges with developments this size. Everyone agrees that we need to make sure any changes do as little harm as possible.
There seems to be an acceptance that what we have now is an acceptable baseline, possibly optimal, state. We have just the right number of houses, streets, facilities and people. But our community has gone through several phases of change over the decades. In the 1970s, hundreds of houses were built on a big street running along the top of a ridge. Older residents can remember it being built and the disruption it caused. In the time we’ve lived here, there has been another development of 40 houses, which was very controversial. People living nearby were worried about many more cars on their road into the new development. The developer was taken to the Environment Court over the impact on neighbouring wetlands and provision of reserves. These are all reasonable concerns, in my view.
However, there are people who go beyond that. Some of them don’t want the character of the village to change, and like it just the way it is. I spoke to a few at a recent community workshop we organised to provide feedback into a structure plan for the District Plan variation to allow rezoning for these new developments. They couldn’t see why people would want houses that were different to what we have now. Most of the houses here, like in most suburbs in New Zealand towns, are family-sized houses. Three or four bedroom, single-storied houses on separate sections with lawns and garages. But, not everyone wants that. The latest edition of our community newsletter included a story from a young couple living in a small house with a small garden that they loved. I spoke to someone at the workshop who couldn’t understand why anyone would want a house like that. To them, the only type of house anyone would want and need is the standard family home.
An unfortunate consequence of typical subdivisions is a lack of diversity and options for people living in them. We see this already with older people, empty nesters, who have lived in the family home for decades, but there is only one or two of them there now and they would like a smaller house. There are very few small houses in Pukerua Bay. If you’re lucky enough to be able to build your own, as we have been, then you can downsize and stay living here. If not, your only options are to stay living in a house you don’t want, or move away. The same with childless couples or single people who only need a small house. There are slim pickings here.
So, new housing developments could be a welcome introduction of diversity into our community. It could inspire us to create social connections between people who don’t have young children (the main way to meet new people here if you’re in your 30s), or older people with few old friends living here (or anywhere).
But, these are the voices that are not heard in the community discussions. Typically, discussions are dominated by people who don’t like the changes, and who already live here. Future residents have no voice.
We know from surveys of the community that many people accept that more housing, and more intensive housing, are inevitable. They want it to be sustainably built and environmentally-neutral, with safe ways of moving around the community, and ready access to public transport. So, it’s not all negative — in fact, far from it.
I agree with Jerusalem Demsas to a certain extent — that public consultation is dominated by the self-interested existing residents, who often work against the interests of future residents. But, I don’t believe it’s a hopeless cause. We are lucky that our community representatives are generally open-minded about change, and take a positive approach to making sure change works well for everyone.
Our challenge is to ensure that everyone has a voice. It won’t be easy (partly because we don’t know who future residents might be), and there will be times we are accused to not representing the community’s wishes. But, if we take a broad view of ‘community’, we will try our best to consider and represent everyone, and amplify the voices of those without political power.