YIMBY and Placemaking are the perfect pair

This newly renovated public plaza in downtown Austin houses zero residences and few long-term jobs, yet it is one of the most highly anticipated projects downtown because of the enjoyment people will get from it. (For more on this project, visit the landscape architects behind it, dwg. landscape architecture.)

People get involved in shaping cities for different reasons. Some because they ride bikes or take trains, some because of a professional interest, and some because the rent is too damn high. As rents, land use, public space, and transportation are deeply interrelated, people who are interested in one often bleed over into another. But people talk about cities in very different terms. Placemaking urbanism is concerned with creating places people value. YIMBY urbanism is concerned with making sure all people who want access to places are able to. Let’s walk through the difference in these two languages about cities.

Placemaking urbanism

Placemaking urbanism or design urbanism includes organizations like CNU. Placemakers are more likely to be professionals involved in building cities — planners, architects, designers, developers, land use attorneys, etc. Their emphasis or focus is most strongly on:

  • issues of the public realm: how wide are streets? Are there sidewalks? Are they comfortable to walk on? What materials are the sidewalks made of? Are there street trees for shade and benches for sitting? Do people have access to parks? Is a place a destination or just a pass-through?
  • issues of where the public realm meets the private realm: Do private buildings make it easier for people to walk into them or drive into the garage? Do buildings add interactions between the inside of the building and the street or are they focused on enforcing separation? Are different kinds of buildings and building uses well-situated relative to one another? 

Where it’s at its best

Placemaking is at its best in making places great. In the one time I attended a CNU conference, I saw a dozen different presentations, workshops, or talks that gave lessons on making places better — from the minutiae of exactly what materials to use in crosswalks to how to get buy-in from business owners on improving traffic safety. There’s an attention to detail within this movement that can be truly remarkable. Great places are made of a thousand tiny design decisions, from the species of tree to the width of a travel lane to the location of utility poles. People walking down a street may not know why they prefer one place to another, but there are deliberate, planned choices going on behind the scenes.

This newly renovated public plaza in downtown Austin has created a fascinating place that people have taken to before it even opened.

While each decision may be small, placemaking overall can have dramatic effects in creating long-term value. New homes are usually more valuable compared to aging ones because things work and haven’t accumulated problems or deterioration. But forty years from now, will people still want to live in the places that we’re building today? Some places get more valuable as time goes on while others fall to pieces. Building a place that stays great requires effort.

Great placemakers remind me of great entrepreneurs. They have the vision to take a place that is not yet built — or else a place that is struggling — and through judicious use of (hopefully) small amounts of funds and large amounts of effort and knowledge, create value that didn’t previously exist. Just as a smart developer will engage a great architect to make their building somewhere people want to be, a smart city will engage great placemakers to make each part of their city a place people want to be.

While this value creation aspect is most prominent in public spaces, placemakers also have very valuable ideas about the role of private space in creating valuable public space. What is the right mixture of retail, office, and residential so that the retail has a chance to thrive? How can homes be built so that people passing by get value from being near? A very typical placemaker topic might be garage placement: where is the best place for a garage to be so that cars entering the garage interfere with pedestrians the least?

Placemakers are not focused on density qua density, but rather, density is frequently a tool within the placemaker toolkit to enable other things. It’s easier to make dense places walkable or bikeable because there are more destinations within reach. Transit also requires certain densities to work well. Residential density can make smaller retail outlets viable and give an activated, vibrant feel to public places.

YIMBY Urbanism

YIMBYism (“Yes In My Back Yard”) is a thread of urbanism aimed at opening up cities to use by more people. YIMBY urbanism has more non-development pros, renters, and young people than placemaking urbanism and way more than anti-development movements. YIMBYism is very focused on:

  • issues of density, prices, and access: how can we make it so more people can afford the costs of shelter (whether rent or purchase)? Who has access to the best urban places and how could we change them so more people do? What effects would building denser places have on prices?

Where it’s at its best

YIMBYism is best when fighting for more people to have access to live in, work in, and visit places they want access to. YIMBYs care about places but are far more focused on people and making sure that they can afford to live in places they want to. In arguing for a development, they tend to tally up the benefits in people — how many more people will this new development give access to — rather than in how much better or worse will this make the place. YIMBYs are often more comfortable with quantitative measures like dwelling units/acre, rent, mortgage cost, housing + transportation cost index, than qualitative measures like aesthetics or vibrancy. Even when going to neighboring fields like transit, YIMBYs are very at ease with quantitative metrics like subsidy per rider or capital expenditures per new rider. YIMBYs fight in City Hall, hearing by hearing, ordinance by ordinance, permit by permit, and election by election. Their main emphasis is not necessarily on how to make a development acceptable to more people, but how to organize people to engage in a political fight for more development in great places.

New central-city housing is the primary focus of the YIMBY movement in most places.

Why the two don’t always trust each other

YIMBYism is a movement born out of political conflict with development opponents. Many YIMBYs are used to sitting through public hearings in which development opponents say everything possible negative about a development and see what sticks: the building is too fancy or too plain, it will raise and/or lower property values, it’s too close or too far from the street, it will cast shadows, loom, stick out, and destroy ground squirrel habitat. To a YIMBY, a placemaker can be one more set of people throwing hoops up for a development to jump through.

But the placemaker movement was also born in conflict. Place-making urbanists have long fought for higher standards of development in reaction to the auto-centric, mass produced sterilized development characterized by sprawl. There is no interest in perpetuating bad development. Auto-centric development, density without amenity, density without proximity is not seen as any kind of tolerable solution to affordability place-makers because, in part because it perpetuates awfulness, but also in part because it fails to address the primary challenge of affordability – a scarcity of good places concentrating demand on the most attractive places.

Most developments that satisfy one movement satisfy the other. High density development often generates the profits needed to make placemaking possible; great placemaking can be the lubricant necessary to make high-density development politically viable. Nevertheless, individual developments can end up dividing people based on which thread they identify with more.

Additionally, the alliance is much stronger in practice than it is in theory. When sticking to support for individual developments or development rules, the two sides agree the vast majority of the time. But when speaking about theory, the two threads diverge sharply. For example: are high property values in a location primarily an indication of a job well-done, because they show high demand for living there? Or are they primarily an indication of a failure, because supply has failed to keep up with demand?

Why the two need each other

On a fundamental level, YIMBYs need placemakers because what’s the point of fighting for access to places if the places aren’t great? Fighting for access to existing great places can easily be complemented by fighting to improve places that are less than great today. On a political level, YIMBYs need placemakers because they can’t afford to cede any argument to development opponents. Development opponents use a vast family of arguments that new development makes places worse — more traffic, less sunlight, more noise, worse aesthetics. The more attractive each new development is, the more it has reckoned with the issues of making great places, the greater a chance it has of winning supporters from outside the NIMBY and YIMBY camps.   

On a fundamental level, placemakers need YIMBYs because what’s the point of fighting to make places great if people can’t access them? On the political level, placemakers need YIMBYs because they need allies. The placemaker movement has fought for decades to improve public space and left some wonderful legacies in places. But the broader scope of cities and policy in the United States has barely budged. YIMBYs represent one of the most energetic and promising movements to change this; if placemakers can’t land their message with this group, the message needs to change.

In Austin’s West Campus, new development has paid for improvements to the public realm, like wide sidewalks, street lighting, street furniture, and this bike lane.

Although the YIMBY movement says “yes” to development, implicit in its message is the idea that development should be placed where people actually want to be. The mainstream of the YIMBY movement doesn’t, for example, argue that there should be more housing development in, say, the middle of a desert, far from civilization or social networks. The focus of the movement is on facilitating access to places that people want to be. But a key part of accessing places people want to access is making places people want to be in the first place. While the placemaking movement says “yes” to “high-quality” development, the benefits of this development only accrue to people who have access to it. Great places aren’t an end in and of themselves. A city with great neighborhoods will only be enjoyed by those who can afford access to those neighborhoods. Great placemaking is something that can happen at any scale or density — but a great place built at half the size of the population that needs it leaves half the population shut out. Placemakers need to acknowledge that YIMBYs counting units and fretting rents have a valid — and pressing — point.

This should be easy

The alliance between people whose first thought about creating better, denser places is that they’re awesome places and the people whose first thought about creating better, denser places is that everybody deserves access should be an easy one. So easy in fact that tons of people switch casually between the two families of arguments without even realizing they’re doing so or realizing that other people are mostly focused on one side or another. Occasionally somebody will say something that reveals themselves to be in line with one group but not the other: a YIMBY will fight in favor of a development built in a style that placemakers have spent decades trying to reform; or else a placemaker will deride YIMBYs for focusing on how many people have access to a place instead of whether it will be great for those who do. These moments can be deeply unsettling not just because they’re surprising but because they make people realize they’re fighting for different values. 

But the fit here is entirely natural. In places where YIMBYs are active, they are overwhelmingly more supportive of placemaking than development oppontents are; after all, they are the ones agitating for change! Placemaking can enhance YIMBY efforts by winning Maybe in My Backyards folks over with placemaking improvements. The yes-and argument here is the true winner!

Update 9/6/2017: Added credit and link to dwg.