Excuse me, sir, your bigotry is showing…

Over this past year I’ve grown more concerned with the use of terminology like “preserving neighborhood character” or “quality of life” in neighborhood plans. Sure, they sound well meaning and play to our sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. But, as I’m coming to learn, these vague notions are often held by community members as shields against the types of development they feel threatened by.

Put more bluntly, I worry that we as planners and civic leaders have allowed the use of these ambiguities as convenient covers for bigotry. When neighbors oppose things like granny flats (accessory dwelling units), on-street parking, or apartments, they essentially assert a belief that the “right” to ever-increasing property values for homeowners trumps equitable access to a community. Sure, they may show up to city council meetings and warn us about the impending gridlock a new duplex will cause to their street, but what they’re really against isn’t the traffic, but the people who make up the traffic.

Some neighborhood groups are clever in their approach to NIMBYism. I’ve heard such complaints under the guise of concerns about garbage bins in the street, safety for kids playing outside, and damage to the environment. Others seek to instill fear in their neighbors by insisting that multifamily housing or transit will bring crime.

One Austin neighborhood was a bit less covert: they specifically outlined the sorts of properties believed to be incompatible with the neighborhood. Together on that list were apartments and “AIDS houses.” I’m not sure how the two are comparable, or why so-called AIDS houses were named in the first place, but I’d like to know how this ever flew past an attorney’s radar before being adopted by the local council.

If we hope to ever make progress in overcoming bigotry as a society, or at least working to foster more inclusive neighborhoods, we need to throw out the nebulous language and require citizens to be specific about what is important to them. The built environment is tangible; the guidelines supporting its development should be tangible as well.

If “neighborhood character” means ensuring that homes are no taller than two stories, for whatever reason, then let’s be clear about that. Want more trees to shade the sidewalks or decorative streetlights so you can feel safer walking your dog in the evening? Then say so. But, if your unspoken intent is to keep the very people out of your neighborhood who keep it functioning—emergency response workers, teachers, service-sector employees, garbage collectors, single parents with school-aged children, students, minorities, and anyone else—it’s time we put that language (and that mindset) back into the 1950s where it belongs.


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