The turbulent river of opposition to higher density housing

Apr 16
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I want to explain about the turbulent river of so-called NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) behaviour and opposition to higher density housing and its two tributaries:

1. Insensitive housing design that reflects a lack of understanding of the significance of “home” in our lives; and

2. Insensitive community engagement processes that are inadequate in dealing with the strong emotions generated by place attachment.

Community opposition to higher density housing and infill development is such a common experience that we even have acronyms to sum up and – let’s admit it – dismiss the comments and perspectives of the opponents.

  • NIMBY: Not in my backyard
  • BANANA: Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything
  • NIMTOO: Not in my term of office

So here are my questions:

  1. What if so-called NIMBYism were justified because what is planned for your backyard really shouldn’t be in your backyard? (A design question)
  2. What if our new higher density housing were truly “home-like” and fitted well with neighbouring housing? (A design question)
  3. What if everything we learned and knew about housing in the 1960s and 1970s were brought to bear in the creation of – and community engagement about – increased housing densities? (A design and community engagement question)

Are these issues important?

Recently I spent a month teaching at Harvard and living in Boston. The people I spoke with there reminded me of the building blocks of community psychology in the 1960s and 1970s, when many critics and researchers explored the effects of the forced relocation of the multi-ethic residential community from Boston’s West End. In all, 2,700 families were displaced from the 46-acre site to make way for only five buildings with 477 high-rise, luxury apartments − and some government buildings.

To force them out, the City of Boston condemned the buildings and then stopped collecting rubbish and cleaning the streets.

The American community psychologist, Marc Fried, spent several years with West Enders researching the psychological effects of their forced dislocation. More than 90 percent showed symptoms of depression.

I walked around that “50 acres of emptiness” in Boston. I stood in the snow outside the West End Museum on a cold, windswept day in that drab, bare wasteland. I felt much, much more shock than I had expected.

Back in the seventies, we learned from this disaster. The British sociologist, Peter Marris, who lived in Boston in the seventies, argued in Loss and Change (1974):

“People cannot reconcile themselves to the loss of familiar attachments in terms of some impersonal utilitarian calculation of the common good. They have to find their own meaning in these changes before they can live with them”.

Somehow, we’ve forgotten the wisdom of those Boston researchers. Many Australians are highly critical of planning in the United States. Yet what we’ve done in Australia – tearing down public housing estates and destroying longstanding, close-knit communities, especially in southwestern Sydney – is a national disgrace.

We’ve lost – or we’ve forgotten – the basic, fundamental building blocks of the professional practices that might – just might – help us create more acceptable higher density housing and encourage its positive reception in existing residential neighbourhoods.

But what of housing design?

We all know that some infill housing is simply awful. It looks like offices or factories and is harsh, not domestic in scale or appearance. It rarely “fits in” because many designers, seeking peer accolades and representation in the glossies, want their housing to “stand out”.  It does not look as though it belongs in my backyard. 

What to do in that regard?

We’ll need to remedy the design of some of the new higher density housing I’ve seen in recent years – and not only in Australia!

Back to the turbulent river…

Because the intensity of people’s reactions to proposed housing density increases is such a huge issue for local municipalities, designers, planners and developers, we must identify some of the building blocks of territoriality, place attachment and place protection and the psychology of housing to gain insights into what’s happening to neighbours when they get so upset.

Above all:

  • We must take action on these matters without delay. Inclusion is at risk here. We must support affordable housing and ethnically and culturally mixed communities.

With respect to Tributary 1: housing design:

  • We must be more curious about and respectful of the deeper messages about home and territory that so-called NIMBYites are communicating.
  • We must retrieve and embrace our lost sociological and psychological wisdom about what makes for good housing and good neighbourhoods. 
  • We must work to create more sensitively designed higher density housing – as if it were going into our own
  • We must pay careful – and loving – attention – to the fine grain of housing design.

With respect to Tributary 2: community engagement:

  • We must transform our weak, shallow and inexpert community engagement processes into leading practice.
  • We must evoke the memory of Boston’s West End and remember what happens when we mess with the fundamentals of housing and neighbourhoods.

More than all of that, we must find ways to work with communities with compassion and kindness, accepting that their emotional responses to perceived threats to their homes are valid and worthy of your consideration.

The Higher Density Living conference, taking place in Melbourne this May, will explore strategies for making medium and high densities affordable, desirable and sustainable. Book soon to secure your place!

Higher Density 17

Submitted by Wendy Sarkissian

Wendy Sarkissian

Wendy Sarkissian has worked as a social planning consultant and academic in Australia since 1969. The author of eight books on community engagement, planning and housing, she is a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute.

One thought on “The turbulent river of opposition to higher density housing

  1. Hi Wendy, I share your concerns re the issues you raise re higher density design and community engagement. To my mind a large part of the problem arises from the fact that most higher density development involves a piecemeal process of, mostly, ‘single lot-by-single lot’ redevelopment of originally ‘lower density’ residential lots that have now been rezoned to a higher density in the applicable Planning Scheme, with the design governed primarily by the relevant Planning Code provisions, and the obvious desire to maximise the development return relative to the developer’s perception of the location’s ‘target market’ .

    As a, now-retired, Town Planner with a past career largely involved in large-scale ‘MPC’s’, and a belief in the potentially, better integrated, and more sustainable, planning outcomes that can arise from developing at larger-scale, I have been privately exploring possible means by which such potential benefits could be achieved at the ‘suburban precinct’ or ‘block’ scale, where zoned higher density land is comprised in multiple small residential lots. I have called this ‘Community-Initiated Sustainable Urban Redevelopment’

    Basically, I have come to the view that a wide range of social, economic, environmental, and sustainable planning benefits could be achieved if the owners of the original lots in such areas zoned for higher density purposes, could be convinced to not only ‘pool’ their land interests [not amalgamate the titles] in such areas, to form much larger ‘Master Parcels’ for a more integrated, and diversified, basis for phased development, but to also retain project design involvement through the planning process, as well as a long-term shared ‘financial interest’ in the under-lying ‘Master Parcel’ [eg via a Community Land Trust, Management Company, or similar scheme], with future ‘project development sites’ within the ‘MP’ being sold on a lease-hold basis for planned and approved development.

    While fully recognising the initiation and implementation difficulties involved in such an approach I consider that it is ‘do-able’, and would provide the ability to plan and undertake integrated higher density development – incorporating a range of compatible uses, community facilities and services, and social, economic, and environmental benefits, that would be unlikely to ever be able to be provided under current planning & development processes. Moreover, it would give the existing owners of such zoned land both substantial and meaningful control over their future community destiny and establish a model for other such projects.

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