Toward a “QUIMBY” Charter

Isn’t it past time for civic-minded people to come together and talk rationally about how to meet the challenges we face, AND protect and improve the assets that make Portland a great city?  Is it time for “Quality In My Back Yard”?

Are we likely to see things get worse, not better?

We’ve all heard about “NIMBYs” – those often-disparaged people whose response to a new project is likely to be, “Not In My Back Yard.”  Although they’re usually caricatured as selfish and insensitive to the larger community’s needs, sometimes NIMBYs have a point.  (As I myself often observe when working with stakeholders as a public involvement consultant to governments, NGOs and private developers.) The impact of what’s being proposed amounts to trading away something good, or at least tolerable, for something worse. A meadow will get bulldozed and replaced with a cookie-cutter housing tract. Or a beautiful old building will get torn down and replaced by an egotist’s eyesore.  That is not sustainable urban development, by any definition.

The results don’t have to be worse, of course. There ARE developments that improve the quality of existing neighborhoods, and that offer new amenities for existing residents. This is the spirit behind the “YIMBY” movement – “Yes In My Back Yard.”

Perhaps the trouble with the YIMBY movement, though, is that it doesn’t seem to focus much on the important differences between good projects and bad ones. Bring them all on, YIMBYs seem to say — yes, and yes again! But this approach might or might not even solve our problems – see for example the failures of places like Vancouver B.C. that tried to build their way out of problems. There is a very real risk that we will only be left with an uglier, less livable, and still more expensive city.

Enter the “QUIMBY” movement – “Quality In My Back Yard.”  We want to work together in a win-win way, to meet needs equitably, to address impacts, and to improve the quality fo the city.

QUIMBYs seek:

1. An evidence-based approach, please. No magical thinking, no mindless “build baby build,” no “McMansion Relief Acts.” If you are a proponent of a project, it is incumbent on you to show how it will actually meet our regional needs, and not bring more negatives than positives. Will it cost less than the area’s average housing stock? Will affordable units maintain their affordability over time, or quickly jump to “market rate” — leaving us back where we started, or worse?  Does the project provide more affordable units as part of a broader regional strategy, sufficient to be effective?  Is it also protecting our irreplaceable heritage, and the livable qualities that made our city attractive in the first place?

2. “All new things built with the idea of preserving the beauty of the city and adding to it.” This was famed Portland architect A.E. Doyle’s simple criterion for new additions made in 1906, and it’s still a perfectly good one.  Why can’t new construction be beautiful, livable, and desirable, from the neighbors’ point of view? (Not just from an architect-specialist’s point of view?)  It can — and it must.

3. A special focus on the public realm, our “urban commons.” The most important – and most democratic – part of Portland is its public realm. Our beautiful, walkable, safe streets and sidewalks make the city hospitable for all of us, whether rich or poor. All new developments should contribute to this “common wealth”, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods, and not diminish its value in any neighborhood.  We don’t address our regional challenges by damaging the already-successful places.  We do so by improving the less successful places that deserve better quality, and often better urban equity.

4. A collaborative, win-win approach – not an “attack them and throw them under the bus” approach.   The national level has seen an ugly new mood of bullying, Twitter-trolling and divisiveness.  Not only is this atmosphere toxic to our national culture — it doesn’t solve problems, and more often puts solutions farther away than ever.  This suits some people just fine — especially the powerful and the influential, who benefit from the status quo.  How ironic if Portland were to adopt this same bullying culture, only with a distinctive “blue flavor.”  There is sad evidence that this is happening.

5.  A pro-active approach, building collaboration, trust and multilateral solutions at the outset.  Imagine if neighborhood associations were to partner with the City and developers to adopt pre-entitled projects that are supported by the neighborhood — and then everyone got behind cost-lowering and regulatory streamlining strategies?  That just might provide affordable housing, that everyone could support.

6. The best benchmark of sustainability is what has already sustained.  New isn’t necessarily better.  For those projects that are being marketed as more sustainable, QUIMBYs have every reason to question the premises.  First, new projects create a large negative impact from the embodied energy and materials of construction.  Second, new green technologies often have a poor track record of performance in relation to claims.  Third, what is fashionably new today is by definition unfashionably dated tomorrow — often with a dingy aesthetic to match.  Projects that don’t wear well over time aren’t likely to be conserved over long life spans — an essential trait of sustainable buildings and cities.

As we experience an urban growth boom and new pressures on rents and sales prices, clearly the Portland region needs new housing units. But as this blog has long urged, it matters a great deal what those units are, and where they are. Expensive new high rises with Mount Hood views aren’t going to do anything for regional affordability, if they actually raise the average cost per unit. In fact, there’s some evidence that they will help to draw even more wealthy new residents and global investors to the region. (That happened in Vancouver, for example.)

No less importantly, demolishing relatively affordable older units and replacing them with expensive, often out of context new units is a double blow to the city. We lose those affordable units — and the heritage they embody — and too often we gain ugly, disruptive units that damage the beauty and livability of the neighborhood.  If we believe in the public process — if we believe in democracy — then we have an obligation to respect the rights of neighbors to defend the quality of the public realm, their urban commons.

There is a better way to “get to yes.” We can meet our housing goals, and preserve the heritage and livability of the city –with “quality in my back yard”!

In future posts we will articulate some of the tools that QUIMBYs can use to “get to yes” on better-quality, more affordable projects, that build on — and don’t damage or destroy — our livable heritage.