(Editor’s Note: NIMBY Wars — The Politics of Land Use was just published. In this excerpt, like PR and mass meetings we have already discussed, this excerpt explains the shortcomings of typical tactics that many consultants propose for developers, which can backfire and worsen prospects for approval,)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox
A charrette is an extensive public workshop, often emceed by a developer-friendly planner, held to discuss a project proposal. Worth conducting only for very substantial projects, charrettes can easily cost $500,000 and continue for many weeks or months, a time commitment few ordinary citizens can make.
Charrettes are of dubious value: they secure assent only from some of those who are able to attend, who examine every aspect of the project from both a macro and a micro perspective, and discuss at length and in detail every impact and a range of proposed solutions. This is the reason that such mass discussions take so long and the consensus reached is illusory at best. Such protracted meetings, held outside of the approval or public consultation process, are actually attempts to neutralize
opposition by achieving acquiescence; what they in fact do is arm opponents with new issues.
Most often, a consensus-building process involves mitigation demands, concessions by the developer, and downsizing of the project. Even then, those attending the meetings do not represent a majority of voters, so there is still nothing to stop disgruntled opponents from finding fault at the public hearing or consultation, deluging public officials with opposition letters, or holding a demonstration at the construction site. The question for the developer is how many opponents did the exercise win over or neutralize, how many undecideds did it move to the support column, and at what cost? If, after a six-week process, 50 opponents were neutralized and 100 neutrals changed to supporters (highly optimistic numbers) and the consensusbuilding process cost $500,000, the developer spent $3,333.33 per vote switch without having achieved a critical (or even workable) mass of support. He might have done better to buy everybody a flatscreen TV.
Like the public mass meeting, the charrette approach lacks practicality. For all the meetings, vision statements, high-toned community benefits lists, and input that the planner envisions, there remains a missing element: selfishness. What’s in it for me, personally, if I support this project? There is no collaborative approach to decision making if you can’t get ordinary citizens to the meetings. Because the community involvement is not genuine, holding a charrette certainly doesn’t inoculate a project from citizen attack, much as its proponents might wish it did.
The Facilitation Approach
The poor man’s quickie charrette, facilitation is actually an openmike public meeting without the empowered board, sort of a dress rehearsal for the real hearing. It involves less study, preparation, and expense than the consensus-building approach. But it gives opponents just as much opportunity to redesign the project, demand concessions and downsizing, pump up mitigation and linkage demands, and entertain their wildest dreams of what the project should and should not include. Usually, the facilitator-planner has salted the crowd with supportive agents, but unless she has a firm grip on the citizens and can wear them down until they adopt the vision, facilitation produces a creature designed by a committee.
For the developer, the facilitation method shares many of the same disadvantages that the inaptly named consensus-building process presents, because, like the latter, it cannot be done in a vacuum. Facilitation produces no real community consensus. Even if the planner writes up a report of the facilitation meeting and resulting recommendations and presents it to the board, project opponents will still write letters, make phone calls, and turn out at the official meeting to put the lie to the report and the illusion of consensus. A facile response to the opposition — that the opponents who had questions or issues about the project should have attended the facilitation — will not endear elected public officials to their voter-constituents, and intractable opponents will not tolerate such a dismissal. They’ll turn first on the planner to critically examine his visionary agenda, and then on the board members, who had no authority to delegate their sworn responsibility to an unofficial tea-and-cakes conclave of elitists. Newspaper reporters and bloggers love such stuff, and they especially relish the opportunity to deflate board members’ egos, to portray them as inattentive if not incompetent, and to editorialize on the excessive influence of planning employees over elected public officials.
The Marketing Approach
Often coupled with a PR approach is a marketing effort to sell the “product” politically. The idea is to stress the positive consequences of the project and generate such goodwill and warm feelings that residents will welcome both the developer and the project, much as they would embrace a stranger who saves their puppy from drowning.
Again, this approach assumes that citizens will recognize and acknowledge the project benefits, will gladly do what’s best for the community to their own disadvantage, and will be unable to resist the compelling case that the marketing people will present. It absurdly assumes that citizens absorb information only from the marketing team, not from antagonistic sources, or at least that the marketing team is held in higher esteem than project opponents and therefore has greater credibility. Neither assumption is true.
Superficial PR thinkers believe that the endorsement of a local celebrity or sports hero will ensure victory by igniting general adulation for the project. No consideration is given to the idea that citizens might be able to think for themselves or might have perfectly good reasons for their opposition. Great effort is therefore expended to recruit local champions thought to be charismatic, but who, if they can be found at all, usually prove less than persuasive. While deference to local big shots and celebrities might make some headway with people who otherwise don’t care whether the project proceeds, it’s awfully difficult to translate a winning football season into support for a landfill. The celebrity marketing approach will not be effective in convincing those who are likely to organize and lead the opposition: people whose lives, homes, and families are directly and adversely affected.
The fatal flaw in these approaches is that they seek to charm the resolute and convert the intractable. The agenda of the intransigent opponent is to kill the project, not to improve it, adjust it, or cooperate in finding ways to get it built. The true reasons for people’s opposition may be based on fact or on misperception, but the difference is a nullity since they believe their perception to be reality. In other words, it will do the developer no good to reassure opponents that the project will not cause a traffic jam, since they believe it will, viscerally and intuitively. No amount of number-crunching proof from a traffic engineer or reassurances from a public official will convince them otherwise. They know better than to trust a politician, and they certainly know better than to believe a developer’s hired lackey, particularly when his figures produce counterintuitive results.
(For biographical details on P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox, click here)