Against "Community Character"

MLewyn's picture

In an interesting article entitled "The Case for Listening to NIMBYs", Kaid Benfield mentions "that municipal planners would benefit by being more sensitive to building types that fit well with existing neighborhood character."  He writes that pro-infill planners should encourage such infill to be consistent with the character of the existing neighborhood.  Of course, he has a point: if a landowner wants to add housing units to a neighborhood, everyone is happier if those housing units look like existing housing.

But I would limit this principle in a couple of ways.  First of all, neighborhood character often stinks.  Thanks to decades of auto-oriented zoning and transportation planning, the neighborhood character of most of America is auto-dependent sprawl.  If we think auto-dependent sprawl stinks, we need to change neighborhood character rather than accommodate it. (Or, if we are more libertarian-minded, allow developers to do so).

Second, even in walkable places, any new building is by definition a (small) change in neighborhood character.  If you believe that new housing should go in existing neighborhoods, you are for changing neighborhood character.  (And even if you are for sprawl, you are for changing neighborhood character- but you want to change it in different places).  We can soften those changes by requiring new infill to look as much like current housing as possible- but we are not going to satisfy those who insist on the status quo in the name of "neighborhood character."

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