Whose Community Counts When Considering Development Projects?

When major development projects—or sometimes even minor ones—are under consideration, there’s generally a process by which community input into the nature of the project is required. I got asked a question about this yesterday at an American Planning Association event, and came away without anything super-insightful to say. What I wish I’d done was point to the discussion in the comments section to this post about plans to bring development to the long-vacant McMillan Sand Filtration Plant site in Washington, D.C.

It’s a blog comments section, so in principle anyone could weigh-in. But in practice the discussion is dominated by a couple of people living in the neighborhood who are very focused on some very localized community issues. Traffic impacts, in particular, loom very large as does the question of what park amenities will be part of the parcel.

So far so good. It’s natural for a community to wonder about such things. But what’s the relevant community here? I live in the District not so far from the site and I see my community’s interests somewhat differently. I don’t care about traffic on the neighborhood roads right by McMillan, but I do care about all the inbound commuter traffic from Maryland on New York Avenue that’s induced by pushing residents farther and farther into the exurbs. I wish a new supermarket would open up in McMillan because it would place some competitive pressure on the supermarket right on my block and perhaps force them to improve a bit. I would also welcome new middle-class residents to the McMillan site, where their property and income tax payments will help spread the burden of supporting the city’s fixed infrastructure costs and social services to our poor residents. Meanwhile I write on the Internet for a living, but there are surely lots of service in the broader D.C. community who would like to see more people living in the city bringing more customers to their restaurants and hair salons and HVAC repair businesses.

Long story short, you clearly need to take the community’s interests into consideration when doing a big project, particularly a project on publicly owned land. But “the community” is an ambiguous concept. People live lives enmeshed in overlapped series of communities. If everyone would like to see more development “in the city” but less traffic “in the neighborhood” and then we always define “the community” to mean “the neighborhood” then we actually wind up with much less overall development than the community wants. Since it’s not feasible to represent all the different versions of community that exist through direct democracy, we’d normally like to rely on representative democracy in which elected officials represent both idiosyncratic local interests and also broad ideological visions of the common good. But since most American cities lack meaningful partisan competition we end up under-weighting different ideas about the larger community-as-city relative to very local ones.