Urbanites must share scarce spaces; city planners their plans
By Goh Sui Noi, Straits Times, Feb 23, 2012)
SINGAPOREANS are not alone in their Not in My Backyard (Nimby) attitude towards projects that could potentially be disadvantageous to them personally.
Last spring, a clean-up effort after the nuclear meltdown crisis in Fukushima came up against a Nimby challenge. In Koriyama, a city 64km from the stricken nuclear power plant, contaminated soil was scraped from schoolyards to reduce the level of radiation. The city authorities had planned to truck the contaminated soil to a landfill. But those living near the landfill objected.
Farmer Akiko Murata, 50, has three children and opposed the plan. ‘They said they’re worried about the schools in the centre of the city, but we have schools near here too,’ she told Bloom-berg. In the end, each school buried the tainted soil under school grounds.
In China, where protesters are often farmers affected by land grabs or underpaid migrant workers, thousands of Xiamen residents took to the streets in 2007 to protest against the building of a petrochemical plant. They said it threatened their health and the attractiveness of their port city.
Health, personal safety and economics are some of the more common reasons for residents’ objections to projects near their properties. Sometimes, it is mere snobbery.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan for a new entrance to ease congestion at a subway station’s exits in the Upper East Side has been held up by residents living in the vicinity. The increase in pedestrians will destroy the bucolic charm of their street, residents complained, with one explaining: ‘People to the west don’t take the subway. Not to be elitist, but they don’t.’
Nimby cases are more often sad than ridiculous. The non-profit organisation Drenk Behavioural Centre in New Jersey has resorted to setting up its facilities stealthily. Whenever it has publicised its facilities, which include homes for troubled teenagers, it has met with resistance and hostility.
In New Jersey, municipalities are required to build affordable housing for the poor but communities often oppose such housing.
‘As soon as you tell people you are trying to provide housing for lower-income folks, you run into resistance from the immediate neighbours and then the community at large, saying ‘This brings drugs, this brings crime’,’ an affordable housing provider told South Jersey magazine.
There are similar situations closer to home. In 2010, residents in Pasir Ris and Tampines objected to plans to build rental flats close to their blocks. In 2008, Serangoon Gardens residents were up in arms when a proposal was made to convert a disused school into dormitories for foreign workers.
More recently, some residents in Woodlands signed a petition against a proposed daycare centre for the elderly while some in Toh Yi Drive opposed the building of studio flats for senior citizens.
Unfortunately, few have answers to the question of ‘If not here, then where?’. As Koriyama’s Ms Murata said about the contaminated soil: ‘If you ask me where they should put the waste, I have no answer.’
Sometimes, as in the case of the homes for troubled teenagers in New Jersey and the eldercare centres in Singapore, it is better for these facilities to be close to their communities. And in densely populated Singapore, it is hard to cater to the needs of one group without coming up against the interests of another.
So what is the solution?
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Larry Susskind’s work on the Nimby syndrome could be useful here in Singapore.
In 2010, he wrote that the only way to overcome the Nimby syndrome was to ensure an overwhelming majority believed the benefits of the proposed facility would outweigh the costs they were likely to experience.
With every siting effort, a small percentage – less than 10 per cent – of people would be in favour of the proposed facility because they would probably gain from it.
An equally small percentage would be opposed because they were disproportionately affected as they lived right next to it. Another 10 per cent would pay no attention whatsoever to it.
The 60 per cent to 65 per cent majority are the ‘guardians’ who would side with the proponents or opponents of the project, depending on how they have been persuaded. It is the guardians’ action that ‘leads to most facility siting controversies’, wrote Prof Susskind.
There should be public involvement in the decision-making process by holding extended public dialogues in which questions can be asked and answered. Communication should not be one way, of trying to ‘sell’ the project or ‘educate’ the opponents. He also suggested engaging a mediator to manage a consensus-building process.
Lastly, he said ‘losers’ needed compensation. It was not rational to ask the small number who stood to lose out to support the project because the gains to everyone outweighed the costs. Compensation could be in kind.
While there would always be a small minority that would not be persuaded, he said the trick was to get the guardians on the proponents’ side.
Other analysts suggest building up support for a project proactively – rather than just reacting after residents start protesting.
In other words, don’t count on the altruism of the people affected to support a project just because it is a worthy one. Deal directly with the real problems and issues that are likely to arise in order to overcome community opposition.