The Public Eye: Notes on NIMBYism Part II: Density, Equity, And the Urban NIMBY

By Sharon Hudson
Friday August 11, 2006

Most urban NIMBYs in Berkeley who oppose new developments are not part of an insulated class trying to hang onto their privileges. They are part of a sacrificial class that already lives in or next to high-density areas or transit corridors. They mostly do all the “right” things: walk a lot, drive little, consume little, live in little spaces, have little gardens (if any), and tolerate being a little too crowded. High-income people consume much more, utilize many more resources, and contribute much more to global warming than low-income people. Yet all the detriments of man’s environmental abuse and atonement are borne by the poor and funneled into high-density areas.  

It would be considered pathologically regressive to suggest an economic or social policy that makes life more difficult for those who already have marginal lives, while shielding those with the best lives from all unpleasantness. Yet in land use policy, this is widely accepted. Zoning regulations are the means by which huge differences in quality of life are enshrined in law; they are a form of class discrimination that goes unchallenged. Although I am not about to suggest doing away with zoning, in any liberal and progressive society, legally sanctioned inequities must be examined periodically to see if they are necessary, and if so, how they can be made more tolerable. 

In Berkeley, those in low-density neighborhoods have few problems and are pretty good at defending their interests. Week after week, the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) gives painstaking consideration to protecting the views, air, privacy, and sunlight of homeowners in the better parts of town. But current and future residents of high-density neighborhoods are not so lucky: ZAB and the City Council deprive dozens of them at a time of the little quality of life they enjoy with only a crocodile tear or two. ZAB members who live in comfortable low-density areas have no trouble telling the urban NIMBYs to stop whining. This would likely change were ZAB representative of Berkeley’s housing demographics. 

There are at least three ways in which Berkeleyans who live in high-density areas are disadvantaged. First, quality of life is poor. High-density living is less spacious, less pleasant, less quiet, less peaceful, less attractive, less healthy, more toxic, more stressful, and provides less freedom and access to nature than low-density life. It is convenient but false to think that people live in these areas by choice, because they want an interesting and “vibrant” lifestyle. The vast majority eagerly move up the zoning ladder as soon as they can—which is why cities are dying while suburbia is thriving. Every indicator shows that the advantage of high-density living—ready access to diverse and stimulating people and cultural activities—does not outweigh the disadvantages. Urban sprawl will continue unabated until the drawbacks of high-density life are drastically reduced. 

Apparently no fan of unchecked urban vibrancy, the World Health Organization states that the “sensory overload and the continuous tension and change” inherent in difficult social and housing conditions “increases feelings of anxiety and uncertainty,” leading to a long list of social, psychological, and bodily ills. Anonymity, vandalism, and crime accompany density, and noise exposure is insidious, stressful, and largely unaddressed. And, adding to the burden of their own density, the rest of society’s unpleasant and unhealthy commercial, manufacturing, and institutional activities are also funneled into poor, high-density, and mixed-use neighborhoods.  

Berkeley has plenty of mixed-use development, and smart growth calls for more, but livable mixed-use development requires ironclad protection of residential rights. But Berkeley’s planners and politicians habitually encourage commercial and institutional activities to expand at the expense of residents. For example, Berkeley has not addressed the dilemma that institutional and commercial (mixed-use) demand for parking can expand almost indefinitely, and becomes worse as businesses become more successful. And the noise generated by large buildings and non-residential activities is pooh-poohed if discussed at all. Ignorance may be bliss for ideologues and planners, but urban residents must live in reality. 

Second—and perversely—Berkeley deliberately makes life in high-density areas even worse than it already is. When planners see a street struggling with social collapse caused by big anonymous apartment buildings, instead of trying to rehabilitate that street, they rush in to put more big buildings there. Traffic and buses are, of course, directed straight through high-density neighborhoods. One Berkeley planner informed me with apparent delight that Berkeley’s General Plan requires him to make parking as difficult as possible in my neighborhood. Such callous attacks on suffering and marginal neighborhoods in the name of the shallowest interpretation of “smart growth” turn naive neighbors into enraged urban NIMBYs overnight.  

Third, high-density residents pay “density taxes” in lost time and dollars from crime, parking fees and fines, construction inconvenience, neighborhood deterioration, loss of property value, etc. Parking fees and fines are particularly regressive “taxes” that disproportionately fall on low-income residents and renters in high-density and mixed-use neighborhoods. We pay for an ineffective residential parking program, then get ticketed, towed, and vandalized because our cars are parked too far away to keep an eye on. About $1,000 in parking fines is paid every month by my immediate neighbors—mostly lower-income renters—because there is no place to park on street-sweeping days. The city recently received over $400,000 for selling the university our parking spaces and roads during the Underhill dormitory construction, but refused to use a dime of it to help the impacted neighborhood. Such “taxes” only fall on those in the higher density areas. 

Does all this mean that we should eliminate zoning, or that we should decrease the quality of life in R-1 until it is as bad as in R-4? Of course not. It means we should trade our traditional planning approach, which perpetuates class discrimination and urban flight, for ethical and creative planning and zoning that improves and maintains good quality of life in all urban settings, especially high-density ones. High-density living can be excellent if it is thoughtfully designed and protected. The goal is to make life in R-4 and mixed use areas different (yes, more urban, more active) but equal in quality to life in low-density areas.  

Both social justice and environmentalism demand a complete overhaul of our planning priorities. To improve equity, we should recognize that residents in high-density areas are not there by choice, but nonetheless “pay” disproportionately to reduce the environmental damage caused mostly by others. Therefore we should do our best to mitigate all damage to them, and to provide them compensatory benefits as well. To stop urban flight, we must upgrade the livability of high-density areas until such areas can attract and retain as many stable residents as possible. High-density areas must stop being dumping grounds for experiments in unguided self-interest; instead, they must become showcases of quality living, carefully crafted in the public interest.  

The large developments added to Berkeley in recent years have decreased livability and increased inequity. As long as this continues, people will struggle against it. But wouldn’t it be better if those in power joined our urban NIMBYs to embrace a socially and environmentally responsible land use vision? 


Sharon Hudson is a 35-year Berkeley  

resident with a special interest in land use issues.