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3Qs: Getting public buy-in for new development

Who decides what gets built in cities? Both in the U.S. and around the world, it’s up to governments, planning agencies, and community groups. But how it all works—and the outcomes—vary widely. These issues will be discussed today at a Northeastern-sponsored conference at the Colonnade Hotel, “Public Participation and Design in Contested Cities Since the 1960s.” Here, George Thrush, professor and director in the architecture school, discusses public influence in the approval process for new development—and how it might be transformed in the future.

In what way does the public’s participation affect the review process? Has this changed over time?

In most cases, it puts the focus on much more local issues. A project that has strong regional benefits, for example, but that may not conform with the existing character of a neighborhood, is very unlikely to be approved. Even if the regional benefits are significant, the local issues tend to dominate. And this is by design. The approvals process that we know today evolved as a response to what was seen as excessive deference to regional concerns in the 1950s and 1960s, when highways, public housing, and other aspects of urban renewal bulldozed their way through many established urban neighborhoods throughout the nation.

One of the topics up for discussion at the conference is “contested cities.” Can you describe what they are?

“Contested cities” are those where the economy is strong and growing; where there are deep roots for ongoing vitality, like universities and high value-added industries; and where space is at a premium. These cities — like Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles — also often have a highly educated and engaged population. In these places, there has evolved a formal process to allow neighbors to be involved in the process that grants approvals to developers for their projects. Cities like Boston form public review panels composed of representative constituent groups before even considering a project for approval. Including the public in the process from the start serves to inoculate the city from excessive public disapproval down the road, and it is much more flexible than zoning.

What future challenges, like environmental concerns, will impact the way cities are developed?

These are only beginning to be addressed. Cities like Chicago and Boston have implemented requirements that demand higher levels of environmental performance, and these new regulations have been integrated with other formal development requirements. But unlike most other countries, the United States still defers to market forces to shape larger development choices, like where growth should be planned to occur. Instead, we tend to respond to private developer proposals, rather than to produce a plan and invest in a desired outcome. The challenge is to create a regulatory process that preserves the flexibility of the market system with the improved performance of a planned system.

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