Making cities more dense always sparks resistance. Here’s how to overcome it.

Urban density, done well, has all kinds of benefits. On average, people who live in dense, walkable areas tend to be physically healthier, happier, and more productive. Local governments pay less in infrastructure costs to support urbanites than they to support suburbanites. Per-capita energy consumption is lower in dense areas, which is good for air pollution and climate change.

Plus, dense, walkable areas tend to be buzzy and culturally vibrant. There’s a reason they are often so expensive to live in — lots of people want to live there. Demand exceeds supply.

But creating a dense, walkable area almost always means increasing the density of a built environment that already exists. Especially in developed countries, they’re not building a lot of new cities. They’re working with existing ones. And cities built after the advent of the automobile were generally built around cars, which generally means low density.

Densifying can mean up-zoning to allow greater height in existing urbanized areas, or to allow duplexes, triplexes, or apartments in previously single-family areas. It can mean allowing for mother-in-law units (“accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, in the lingo) or units along back lanes and alleys. It can mean extending transit to new areas.

But one way or another it means change. It means telling the residents of an area that a bunch more people are moving in. And that always generates resistance, sentiment that has taken on the name NIMBY [Not In My Backyard].

I asked urbanist Brent Toderian, who has worked with numerous cities on densification projects, how he thinks about, and deals with, NIMBYs in 2017. (More of our conversation here.)

A 630 sq. ft. laneway house in Vancouver, by Smallworks.
A laneway house in Vancouver.

David Roberts

My hometown of Seattle is full of purportedly progressive people who enjoy urban amenities like everyone else, but if you ask them to up-zone, it’s a revolution. Talk a little about NIMBYs.

Brent Toderian

I work all over the world, and there are NIMBYs everywhere. Density is never easy. Change is never easy. We have a bias towards the status quo and we tend to weigh loss more heavily than gain. That is human nature.

To me, NIMBY is not a pejorative. It means people are saying, “that thing — we don’t want it in our backyard, in our neighborhood.” There’s nothing inherently bad about that. Sometimes it’s a reasonable point! I don’t want an abattoir in my backyard. I don’t want a concrete-batching plant in my backyard. There are things we don’t want in our backyard, and when you combine that with human nature, almost anything in your backyard that you don’t currently have is going to be a challenge.

So I don’t begrudge NIMBYs. I value them. I listen carefully and I learn what they’re afraid of, why they say no. Often I will learn how to do yes better and address their fears, or at least mitigate them.

NIMBYs are not necessarily the problem. They are behaving normally for humans. The problem is politicians and other decision-makers who know better, who don’t do the right thing because of NIMBY fear. If you’ve had a long process, heard from thousands of people, investigated and understood the technical issues, know your aspirations as a city, and you let 10 or 15 individuals at the last minute show up at council and turn it down? I don’t blame those 15 individuals, I blame the leaders.

I think we need to train our politicians on how to work with the NIMBY mindset and do the right thing in its context. Doing a “yes,” but a better yes, educated by NIMBY fear.

David Roberts

How can public officials get better at that?

Brent Toderian

If you think NIMBYs are hard, it’s astronomically worse when the NIMBYs are right. So you should do everything you can to avoid helping the NIMBYs be right.

I’ll often point to existing buildings and say, “If I thought that’s what I was going to get as a community, I’d be against it too.” The city has to be able to virtually guarantee the quality of the outcome from the urban design, livability, multimodal perspective. And a lot of cities have not set up the culture, the structure, the capacity, the training, or the tools to deliver quality. So when NIMBYs express a fear of change over density, they’re often right.

Don’t let them be right, is what I’m saying. Vancouver has a track record of delivering density in a pretty good way, so we can have a different conversation about change and density and height.

Vancouver’s waterfront.
Vancouver’s waterfront.
(Brent Toderian)

David Roberts

How do you make density something that communities welcome?

Brent Toderian

I don’t support stupid density. I sometimes have as much concern about the YIMBY [Yes In My Backyard] movement as I do about the NIMBY movement. I don’t buy an absolute not-in-my-backyard, but I also don’t buy the argument that we should get rid of our zoning codes and have at it, build as much as we can. Both of those are the extreme.

The conversation needs to be around quality city-making, so I talk about QIMBY — not the Mayor of Springfield on the Simpsons, but quality in my backyard.

Density done well has three components.

One, it has to be of a very high design quality. I don’t just mean aesthetics, although that can be part of it, but it’s about profound relationships being addressed through smart design.

The second piece is that it has to be multimodal. In fact, it has to have active transport priority: walking, biking, and transit have to be emphasized. If you try to design density around cars, it’s a recipe for failure. You have to make walking, biking, and transit not just available, but delightful.

biking in vancouver
Biking in Vancouver.
(Brent Toderian)

The third piece is amenities and a diversity of housing types, to make density not just compact, but livable and lovable. It’s the difference between cramming people in and creating great neighborhoods. So, amenities such as parks and green spaces, public and people places, heritage preservation and integration, community and cultural facilities, civic facilities, even things like incubator space for artists. Amenities are the things that give communities heart and vibrancy. It also includes housing diversity: rental housing and public housing.

Unless you are planning in a magical city where you have infinite resources — and I haven’t seen that city yet — you are struggling to pay for those kinds of amenities, or achieve that kind of housing diversity. In many cases, you can’t mandate it from developers, because that’s beyond your power. So tools like density bonusing are critically important to delivering that piece of the puzzle.

David Roberts

Explain density bonusing.

Brent Toderian

You have a base density, but [a developer] can increase to a higher density by negotiating amenities that make that higher density more livable. The key is to make sure that you’re spending the value on things that make density successful.

I help cities set up these systems all over the world. It makes the conversation about density with developers different. It gives them a higher level of certainty within the political process, which they like.

And it gives the community a sense that the additional density is translating into something that’s going to support quality of life. They can see a connection between the additional density and amenities their community needs, but probably won’t be able to afford.

And that’s key: It should always pay for things the community couldn’t realistically afford without the density. It doesn’t replace the obligation to pay for the basics. But most cities are struggling to pay for things that go beyond the basics.

Vancouver has the most robust density bonusing system in the world. It’s not even close. And it’s one of the keys to our livability. It’s entirely changed the politics.

It is somewhere between a disappointment and travesty that cities are creating massive amounts of value through municipal decisions around density without leveraging some of that value to pay for the things that cities are struggling to afford, the amenities that make density livable and lovable.

Vancouver’s waterfront.
Vancouver’s waterfront.
(Brent Toderian)

David Roberts

You’ve said that it’s often harder for cities to stop doing the wrong thing than it is to start doing some of the right thing. Is that because of established constituencies?

Brent Toderian

Yes. Because there are angry people who will yell at you. You need the will to stand up to that. When I work with cities, a lot of my time is spent preparing them for the storm.

I’ve sat in the municipal chair; I’ve felt the storm directly. I’ve had development agencies try to get me fired for taking firm positions. My job in Calgary was almost literally to turn things around, and you never do that without making many people upset.

This is going to sound overly simplistic, but the truth is, it often starts with a better city-wide conversation. In Vancouver, you can’t swing a stick without hitting an event talking about cities. Its constant, it’s unrelenting. It wasn’t always that way, but it’s certainly that way now.

There’s other cities I work in where the conversation is non-existent, so when you try to introduce a new policy, a new strategy, or an unusual development that doesn’t match the status quo, it’s very easy for all hell to break loose.

Having a broad conversation about city-making doesn’t mean those individual conversations are miraculously easy, but they are different, because you can draft behind a broader conversation with broader participants, who aren’t just against things but are also for things.

A lot of my work with cities and even state-level governments is about changing the larger conversation so that all the smaller conversations aren’t so angry and bloody.

David Roberts

What are some quick wins that can help build public support?

Brent Toderian

You can support catalyst projects [one-off demonstration projects], but ultimately, it’s going to be about the quality of your results. One of the best ways to improve the conversation about development is to make sure there’s better development. If you don’t like NIMBYs, don’t make them right.

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