State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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The Not in My Backyard Syndrome and Sustainability Infrastructure

As our communities have gotten more crowded and transportation become more congested, it has become more difficult to site major facilities for waste management, water supply, sewage treatment, mass transit, and pretty much anything from a Big Box store to a homeless shelter. We call this NIMBY, or “not in my backyard” syndrome. It is a predictable and at times appropriate response to inappropriate development or development that has been undertaken without adequate community engagement. NIMBY takes place because people do not want to lose what they have and they do not trust the large and powerful institutions that try to site major facilities near their homes. But NIMBY is not a natural phenomenon; it is a social construct that needs to be addressed.

In 1980, when working as part of the team developing the Superfund Toxic waste clean-up program, I was assigned the responsibility for developing a community relations policy for government and contractors engaged in emergency and remedial responses at toxic waste sites. Having observed the communications problems at Love Canal where the community and government constantly clashed on the monitoring and cleanup of a dangerous toxic waste site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was determined to do a better job of community engagement as the agency built the national program. The government’s response to the toxic waste disaster at Love Canal started before Superfund was enacted, and continued for years after the federal program began. Eventually many of those living near the canal were evacuated, but the process of understanding the risks at the site, explaining it to the people living in the neighborhood and then cleaning-up the site was a long and drawn out drama of many trials and many errors.

We learned early on that the engineers, environmental scientists, physicians and public health experts working at Love Canal were not trained to communicate complex information about the site and its impact on people and the environment. We needed a “translator”: someone sensitive to the public’s concerns, with good communication skills and enough scientific literacy to mediate interaction between experts and the public. As we designed Superfund’s community relations program we created the new position of Community Relations Coordinator. This person’s job was to ensure effective two-way communication between experts and the public.

Over the past several decades we have seen a range of innovations that have facilitated other types of emergency response actions and the siting of infrastructure and development. In the early 1980s the North River sewage treatment plant on the Hudson River near Harlem was bitterly opposed by local elected officials and community activists. The final design of the plant was adjusted to meet community concerns. It included additional air filtration equipment, and the roof of the plant became Riverbank State Park. It is a beautiful facility with playing fields, an ice skating rink, public spaces, an Olympic size swimming pool, views of the river and other amenities. While the plant siting raised serious environmental justice issues, the state park provided the community with much needed recreational facilities.

In the past several decades we have seen the evolution of “community benefit agreements” between community groups, public officials and developers. Here at Columbia University, a 50 page community benefits agreement was developed which committed Columbia to $150 million in benefit payments to community institutions and nonprofits and to heavy use of minority- and women-owned businesses in constructing the university’s new campus in Manhattanville, or West Harlem. While any new development will have supporters and opponents, the goal in the sewage treatment and campus projects was to work with the community to make development projects more acceptable.

Another technique that can be used to combat NIMBY is to deploy imaginative and high quality design and architecture to make a facility less noxious and more acceptable to a community. Michael Kimmelman, an Art and Design writer for the New York Times beautifully detailed this point recently. In a wonderful article, Kimmelman describes the new garage and salt shed project in Hudson Yards on the northern end of Tribeca. This recently completed Sanitation Department facility was bitterly opposed by the community, including many celebrities. According to Kimmelman:

“Now that the garage has opened, it clearly is, among other things, a whole lot nicer than what used to be there. The sleek new $250 million building is a five-story, 425,000-square-foot structure sealed behind a sound-blocking glass curtain wall that is in turn masked by 2,600 custom-made perforated metal panels, like fins. Differently colored levels, designating different districts, glow behind the fins on the south end of the building. These fins reduce heat and glare, block views of the trucks inside, as neighbors demanded — and calm the facade, unifying the garage’s exterior. Decades ago, the Sanitation Department painted all its trucks white, conveying a message of cleanliness; the fins take a similar tack, giving the garage the appearance of a shiny machine. To create an impression that the building is not so massive, the architects have rested the upper glassed-in stories atop a dark-brick ground floor that is set slightly back, so that the garage seems almost to float on its base….But the real scene-stealer is the salt shed, a 69-foot-tall enclosed cubist pavilion made of glacial-blue faceted concrete in the shape of a salt crystal…”

While excellent design tends to cost more, the costs are often offset by increased real estate values and higher taxes from what are now more expensive properties. Moreover, it can help build trust in institutions. Many of the causes of community opposition to facilities arise from poor design. If the community is concerned about trucks idling and lining up outside the facility, build a large enough tunnel or garage to allow the trucks to wait out of the view of the public. Landscaped grounds and beautiful structures can be used to disguise the facility and absorb some of its impacts.

Unfortunately, for every good example of intelligent project design and sensitive siting processes we can often site dozens of examples of poor designs and efforts to ram inappropriate facilities down a community’s collective throat. Sometimes these shortcuts are rationalized due to costs, but more often it is simply a reflection of poor management and narrow-minded thinking. It’s easy for project managers to become frustrated, bitter and cynical because sometimes even extensive efforts to address community concerns cannot eliminate complaints. The long delayed construction of the Second Avenue Subway in New York City has disrupted residents and small businesses on the Upper East Side of Manhattan although the Metropolitan Transportation Agency has worked hard to reduce the impact of construction. In a city as crowded as New York with extensive development both above and underground, it is difficult to avoid disruption when digging a mile and a half long tunnel.

As we make the transition to a more sustainable, renewable resource based economy, we will need to build new smart-grid electrical systems, new water infrastructure, coastal resiliency projects, mass transit, public charging stations, and other types of development. This will require innovative efforts to plan, design, build, manage and communicate if it is to succeed. There are many examples of best practices that can be imitated and plenty of horror stories of terrible practices to be avoided. It is clear that a commitment to engage and work with communities is an essential component of successful projects. Competent leadership requires investment in effective community relations, communication and design. The 21st century’s brained-based economy has prepared many people to do this work. They simply must be hired, paid and put to work.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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