NIMBY Wars – land use campaign approach directs citizen soldiers

The Saint ReportNIMBY, Politicians and Planning, Property Development, saintblogLeave a Comment

(Editor’s Note: This excerpt from NIMBY Wars — The Politics of Land Use explains how professional land use managers direct campaigns of citizens to support or oppose the objectives of a developer, using traditional political campaign strategies and tactics to generate community action.)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox 

We’ve seen how public relations experts, marketers, and political fixers approach a land use problem. How does a land NIMBYWars_coveruse political consultant’s approach differ?

The land use political consultant essentially designs and runs a political campaign aimed at achieving his client’s goal the same way a political campaign manager in electoral politics plans and executes a campaign to get her candidate elected. The difference in land use politics is that the manager uses the passions and influence of those with the greatest credibility and impact — local citizens — to make the case, rather than rabid Democrats or Republicans (or Tories or Laborites or Conservatives or New Democrats).

The difference is significant. The foot soldiers in an election campaign believe in the candidate, or the platform, or the party. The citizen-soldiers involved in land use politics act from their own dispositions and concerns: they want (or don’t want) a new supermarket because it does (or does not) provide shopping opportunities that will (or will not) enhance their lives, and they are willing (or are not willing) to tolerate the traffic, noise, and other problems that the new development might bring.

These citizens are not duped into supporting or opposing a project. They decide for themselves whether they like or dislike the proposal. The land use political manager seeks out natural supporters or opponents (those who share his client’s position for or against a project, albeit for their own reasons) to form a citizen group, and to arrange coalitions with other groups, each with its own agenda and reasons for supporting or opposing the project.

If modern-day citizen-activists are so sophisticated, empowered, and aggressive, why do developers need to hire land use political managers to guide them? The goals of the land use manager’s client and the goals of citizens, while consistent as far as the project is concerned, doubtless diverge in other areas. The land use political manager prevents the citizens from straying off target and running after irrelevant (or even damaging) issues, and nudges them to stay on message largely by controlling the message. Citizen group leaders enjoy the title and the recognition but aren’t ready to alienate their neighbors, even disagreeable ones, by arguing over policy or strategy with the neighborhood know-it-all. The professional land use political manager can offer her experience as the reason things ought to be done one way rather than another, and when the citizens see the strategy work, they are less likely to question future decisions. Besides, the manager, as an outsider, isn’t too worried about miffed feelings, since she can capture the know-it-all’s support by lavishing praise on him for offering ideas (regardless of whether the group ever uses any of them). Managing middle-class activists is like herding cats, and a professional hand is needed.

The citizens, though feeling entitled and aggressive, are also busy. Soccer moms and dads may know how to organize but don’t have time to do it, what with Junior’s lacrosse practice and Sarah’s ballet lessons, not to mention Dad’s softball league and Mom’s reading club. Even if they organize and have a clue how to manage a group of self-assured, assertive people, they likely don’t have the time or the inclination to undertake the time-consuming research and grunt work needed to assemble the arguments and make the political case, nor do they have the skills to formulate and execute a strategy that will assure a crowd of assertive voters attends the crucial hearing.

A land use professional is needed to keep the organization to gether, committed, and focused, and a political professional is needed to build the critical mass, galvanize the troops, and launch the onslaught. The land use politics practitioner fills these roles, and several others.

Being sophisticated is not the same as being knowledgeable. The citizens will likely not be aware of political campaign law, land use law, or strategies and tactics that an experienced political practitioner would employ. Although a citizen could arguably read up on politics or land use law, that doesn’t make him an expert any more than reading a book on medicine makes him a surgeon. Citizens are interested in the project, but they aren’t going to have the experience and expertise needed to catch a fatal flaw in the opposition’s arguments or evidence. That’s what the manager does. An inexperienced civilian, no matter how sharp her native intelligence or how extensive her education, is simply not up to the task.

Even if the citizens were able to stay on message, they don’t know how to craft the message effectively or express it to its optimum effect. Left to their own devices, citizens will argue about the wording for weeks, discussing whether the campaign literature should be a letter or a flyer, and spend time passing drafts back and forth while the window for effective action slams shut. The professional political manager cuts to the chase, identifies the issues, formulates the message, writes the copy, and gets it promptly into the hands of people who matter.

The crux of land use politics practice lies in the ability to identify citizens and groups of a similar mind, organize them into an effective political force, coordinate their efforts, and then assist them in exercising their rights of free speech, petition, and so forth, making them far more effective than they otherwise might have been.

(For biographical details on P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox, click here) 

Nimby Wars was released on October 28th, and is available at the following fine booksellers: 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *