Delight in the built Environment

Reading through the material for this week, I was at first dismissive of the idea of delight. What does it even mean? How can it possibly do anything for our sustainability goals? Thinking about it makes you wonder, there must be something here, but what is it?

As we have discussed at length on this blog and in class, one of the most effective strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (as well as driving many other environmental and social benefits) is to increase the density of our cities. Developers are clearly on board with this goal, as they see potential to increase their returns and continue redeveloping our cityscape.

Generally, the strongest force opposed to this is the neighborhood coalition, or more rudely, NIMBYs. But why? Delight. The change in our cities is not resonating with them, or delighting them. They see development as a destructive rather than constructive process, taking away more than it gives back.

Why? Architects are trying to design effective, beautiful buildings. Developers are trying to cater to their end users. Design review is trying to speak for the voices of the community. So why are people so opposed to growth and density?

My take. Our cities, or at least many of the parts of them that people take delight in, are a commons. Think about a few examples of what delights people. A beautiful building or streetscape. A neighborhood green space. Public art. Local small businesses. These all have great social value. But they do not have much value for a developer to build.

Take for instance the building appearance. A vast majority of the multifamily buildings built today are built of HardiPanel. Why? The quick answer is that It’s the cheapest option.  The more nuanced answer though, is that the developer does not gain economic value out of using better, more beautiful material. The exterior of the building is a commons. The gains from constructing the building accrues to the owner, while the cost, in this case an ugly building, is distributed in the commons, the community.

How can this issue be addressed? Historically, the issue has been envisioned through a regulatory lens.  As with other commons, the simplest way to try to prohibit the abuse of a commons is to simply regulate it. But this, as we know, creates a contentious, combative compromise.  It triggers the initial feeling of negativity to new development. Suspicion. Are The developer taking more than the compromise allows? Are they being sneaky to get around the rules?

The reality though, is that both side have so much to gain from working together. If developers joined together and agreed to focus on changing the perception of development, from a negative to a positive, they could get back far more than it cost them. If cities and citizens worked with developers to create places that delight, the opposition to density would soften. Developers could build more. The regulatory and design review process would be faster and more predictable. Our cities would be better for people and the environment.

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