Resident Annoyance

By Galen Laserson

“My idea of a perfect school…is one that has no children in it at all.  One of these days I shall start up a school like that.  I think it will be very successful.”

– Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda)

Building sustainable cities would be easier without the presence of a confounding factor:  the people who live in them. Living PlanIT illustrates some challenges of building and attracting people to a green field “city.” For the most part, sustainability efforts focus on making infrastructure improvements to existing cities teeming with residents who are accustomed to or aggravated by the status quo (or both). Thus, managing change is integral to urban redevelopment.

Residents are the gatecrashers poised to overrun the public-private partnership party.  In the Dharavi case, the interests of the area residents, which should arguably be a central priority of any city plan, were expressed as an afterthought.  Though Dharavi offers a pointed example, the complexities that residents surface through their behaviors and desires are omnipresent and powerful – from the dueling interests of groups of citizens in Bogota to the conflicts between citizens and water bandits in Mexico City.

People generally do not like change, especially when it involves accepting short-term pain to achieve a long-term goal (ask anyone who lives on Second Avenue about Manhattan’s new subway). How, then, do entities responsible for championing infrastructure improvements or urban development engage effectively in change management?

In launching its BRT system, New York City government pitched a new mode of transportation to Manhattanites, residents well known for their ability to dish out criticism. In publicized documents, community meetings and press conferences, the city clearly communicated the rationale and process behind the project (i.e. the value it is trying to capture); for example, why the BRT will be faster than current buses and less expensive than building a subway. The MTA posted employees next to every bus stop to retrain residents to use the pre-board payment system (and posted a YouTube video of the process). Mayor Bloomberg took some dissenters in stride, telling reporters on the morning of the launch: “I’m sure there’s going to be confusion this morning […] you’ll write a big exposé that it’s a total failure, and six months from now, you will never write the story that it’s the success that it’s going to be.”[1] Because New York collected and published outcome measures of improvements such as route speed and traffic time, several newspapers wrote exactly such a follow-up story.

Myriad factors affect the communication around an urban development project, from what and where the project is to whom it affects and how inconvenienced (or convenience) they may be. Frequent communication, process transparency and the ability to measure outcomes may serve as a starting point to building trust with affected residents, an essential skill for the city planner who wishes not to undermine his or her own efforts.


[1] Jaya Saxena, “Select Bus Service Even Worse On Weekdays,” Gothamist, October 13, 2010, http://gothamist.com/2010/10/13/select_bus_service_even_worse_on_we.php, accessed February 2013.

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2 thoughts on “Resident Annoyance

  1. Galen is absolutely right in advocating for frequent communication, process transparency, and outcome measurement in implementing new urban systems. My only issue with this approach, however, is that it is reactionary. An important first step in pioneering urban systems is ensuring (before implementation) that the innovation truly possesses utility for individual users. While it is undoubtedly important to carefully manage the roll-out process, urban planners can save a lot of time (and headaches) by rigorously affirming the utility of their product/service early in the design process.

    In our class discussion about Paredes, I was initially surprised when a student said he did not know why anyone would want to live in a smart city. His confusion and reluctance to sign on to the idea of the smart city made me realize the unique way in which I viewed a smart city. When I thought of a smart city, I thought about the example of Songdo, South Korea, where a smart city meant smartphones unlocking doors, air-conditioning and blinds controlled by a central display system in apartments, and the ability to videoconference with doctors or local government when issues arose. I was eager to live in a smart city because of the individual value I perceived.

    As much as we’d like for citizens to adopt sustainable technologies for moral or societal reasons, nothing drives adoption like usefulness. It was similarly compelling in our conversation about Dharavi when one student said the very fact that Dharavi residents had to be forced to stay in the homes that were built meant something was inherently wrong with the offering.

    Sustainable innovations have to be designed with the customer value proposition front of mind. In situations where utility is slow to demonstrate itself, nonprofit and for-profit planners should seek out resident volunteers to pilot new products and simultaneously collect data on the improvements those individuals witness. For a new transit or housing system this could mean focusing on one small region within a municipality initially. While it may be more financially attractive or pragmatic to design large-scale, integrated systems, if adoption is not achieved a seemingly brilliant plan means little.

    Wilson, Fred. “Single User Utility in a Social System.” Available at

    Ludwig, Siegele. “Living on a Platform: For cities to become truly smart, everything must be connected.” The Economist, November 4th, 2010.

  2. For me, your example of the BRT in NYC offered a few different lessons:

    1. The importance of choosing solutions that offer minimal upfront disruption.
    2. The important of collecting data to make decisions and argue for those decisions publicly.

    I think the question remains of how to manage projects that may annoy, inconvenience, or harm some individuals, but are good for the city as a whole. Unless I’m mistaken, the BRT system didn’t cause any inconveniences or harm to NYC residents, and the process was much more about convincing them of the merits of BRT over MRT. In situations where people need to be relocated, the challenge would be much greater.

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