(Editor’s Note: NIMBY Wars — The Politics of Land Use will be published on October 28. In this excerpt, it’s worth looking at some methods for trying to persuade the public to support a controversial development project, starting with public relations)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox
In most settings, the old machine-politics approach to government is extinct where large or controversial development projects are concerned. Modern empowered citizens are not in awe of politicians and are perfectly willing to speak out. Neighborhood constituent opposition can have great impact on the politician who, in the old ward-heeler days, might have ignored citizen opponents to get a favor done for a generous developer. Add to that reality the growing hegemony of professional planners in influencing the decisions that public officials make, and the need is clear for a different approach.
Before explaining in detail how and why land use politics is so effective, let’s take a closer look at some of the methods that have traditionally been used to get large or controversial projects approved, and their shortcomings in the modern age.
One standard method seeks to influence public officials by building public popularity, even enthusiasm, for the project. This public relations approach assumes that if people knew the benefits of the project, they would support it, and conversely that the only reason residents could possibly oppose such a beneficial project is ignorance or misunderstanding of its benefits. The public relations method employs direct mail, advertising, press releases, newsletters, and other informational materials, plus outreach efforts in the form of public meetings, to inform and educate poorly informed or misinformed citizens who, once enlightened, are expected to change their minds.
Most PR programs also employ some version of the mutual gains approach, a negotiating technique that seeks to answer the question “What’s in it for me?” In most cases, though, the PR program poses the question “What’s in it for the community?” and then answers the question with a list of purported community benefits.
This approach may seem workable in theory, but it makes many unwarranted assumptions and ignores the realities of modern project opposition. Getting community leaders to buy in (make a political commitment) to a project is an obsolete top-down approach. It assumes people will dismiss their own concerns and will follow the leader, that leaders will dismiss their own concerns about reelection and will buy in, and that people who oppose the project can somehow be educated, charmed, or shepherded into supporting it, or at least dissuaded from opposing it. None of these propositions is true, and nothing is more fleeting than a politician’s commitment.
While it is certainly important to inform the public and provide political cover for politicians, the public relations approach offers only a few of the elements that are necessary to win, especially on a large or controversial project proposal. The PR effort assumes that the project is beneficial and that people who are reasonable, intelligent, malleable, judicious, and logical will recognize those benefits and therefore be logically and philosophically unable to oppose it.
Like advertising and marketing methods used to sell potato chips, the PR approach assumes that enough repetition of the basic message will eventually win widespread support and, gradually, enthusiasm. It ignores the possibility that opponents could have legitimate reasons for their resistance and disregards their personal (as distinguished from community) concerns. It assumes that opposition arises from ignorance and, conversely, that given enough information, community outreach, and drum-banging from the marketing people (New! Improved!), the project will win public support and approval.
Such is simply not the case in the baby boomer and post-boomer world, where development does not automatically qualify as progress, citizens are not easily led, and intelligent, educated, well-heeled, empowered opponents will not tolerate any disruption of their settled way of life. Educating them with more project information simply gives them more fodder for their opposition arguments. Where the developer’s PR agency sees “plenty of free parking,” boomers see “lots more traffic.”
To kill the project, they will start by hobbling progress, delaying wherever possible, and insisting that the project be rethought and redrawn, substantially reduced in size, and that it feature extensive new mitigation. They will use every argument — traffic, crowding, noise, fumes, safety, strain on public facilities, capacity of the infrastructure, environmental impacts, habitat fragmentation — to stop a project they don’t like, which, these days, is every project. Since any project represents change and brings fears and concerns, there aren’t many large projects that will not generate substantial opposition. Even churches, hospitals, and schools generate intense opposition.
In the next excerpt, we will discuss other alternatives that fall short of effective strategies for land use politics — mass meetings, charette and consensus-building, facilitation, marketing, advisory panel, mediation, lawsuit, court appeals, building at risk, political fixed and do-it-yourself.