Locational Conflict Research Paper

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Locational conflict arises when individuals or groups believing themselves to be negatively affected express opposition to a locational or siting decision made by others. As an expression of protest or opposition within the public sphere, locational conflict represents a political manifestation of a geographical conflict over locational decision-making. Conflict may be initiated by the siting or locational designation of a facility, activity or land use believed by an affected party to be noxious, hazardous, undesirable, stigmatizing, or unwanted for any of myriad other reasons. Such targets of conflict have been dubbed locally unwanted land uses, or LULUs, by Popper (1985).

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NIMBY, an acronym for Not In My Backyard, is a colloquial expression of locational conflict, articulating the sentiment that certain activities, facilities or land uses should be located elsewhere (not in my backyard) because of real or perceived negative effects of the sited activity on the surrounding area. NIMBYism, often referred to as the NIMBY syndrome, refers to the common or widespread opposition to change in one’s surroundings associated with the introduction of an activity or land use thought to bring negative consequences. The term NIMBY is often used, by extension, to refer both to individuals or groups that habitually or expectedly oppose change in the local environment and to the unwanted land use or facility to be sited. In common usage, NIMBYism pejoratively connotes a reactionary parochialism based on self-interested, and thus possibly biased, perceptions. Locational conflict, in contrast, embraces a broader range of perspectives encompassing structural and systemic as well as perceptual causes and allowing for conflict to be liberating rather than simply reactionary in certain circumstances. This range of approaches, their conceptual origins, and means of conflict resolution are examined in this research paper, after describing the spatial and temporal dimensions of locational conflict.

1. Spatial and Temporal Dimensions

The relatively site-specific character of locational conflict differentiates it from relatively a-spatial forms of political expression such as social movements, protest movements, and even geopolitical territorial or jurisdictional conflicts. Individual sites of locational conflict, however, may seek coalitions with conflict participants in other locations to form aggregate social or protest movements covering wide geographic regions. Local advocacy groups in the USA and elsewhere, opposed to the siting of environmentally hazardous waste treatment facilities, for example, have become adept at forming broad-based coalitions seeking to alter regulatory provisions governing waste production, treatment, and disposal at regional and national scales.

Inherently geographic, locational conflict and NIMBYism are frequently manifested at the local scale of the immediate neighborhood or district in which deleterious effects of a proposed facility or activity are concentrated and experienced. If one conceptualizes the negative effects as an externality generated by the proposed facility (e.g., the smoke and particulates expelled through a factory’s smokestack and falling on the surrounding neighborhood), then those effects can be mapped onto a spatial externality field defining the area of impact (Cox and Johnston 1982). Locational conflict is often relatively local in scale since such externality effects usually attenuate sharply with distance. Conflict also becomes manifest at larger spatial scales, often depending on geographical circumstances of adjacency or propinquity. A proposal to site a noxious facility near a municipal or regional border, for example, may generate locational conflict between the abutting jurisdictions. Proposals to site solid waste disposal facilities that will accept waste from multiple jurisdictions often generate opposition to the importation of waste from distant locations, expanding the conflict over a sizable area. Locational conflict has similarly emerged at the national scale over proposals to export hazardous waste from western industrialized nations to lessdeveloped countries and over the migration of noxious effects, such as air or water pollution, across international boundaries. Concerns over the worldwide effects of climate change attributed to material practices in high-consumption nations can be understood as locational conflict at the global scale.

Locational conflict is not a uniquely recent phenomenon nor one exclusively associated with highly industrialized societies. Analysis of newspaper accounts of locational conflicts in nineteenth-century Worcester, Massachusetts (Meyer and Brown 1989) found that the frequency of reported conflicts on a per capita basis was essentially the same in Worcester in the 1870s as occurred in the 1970s in Vancouver, British Columbia (Ley and Mercer 1980), London, Ontario (Janelle 1977), and Columbus, Ohio (Cox and McCarthy 1980). The location of rendering plants, slaughter houses, and saloons generated protest in the nineteenth century, while waste incinerators, homeless shelters, and low-cost housing frequently motivated opposition in the late twentieth century. A vexing new problem for local officials is the location of cellular telephone towers, which are sometimes disguised inside church steeples or building cupolas to avoid protests over visual blight. In general, however, while the targets of conflict have changed to reflect changes in technology, economic activity, and society at large, the intensity of conflict was no less virulent a hundred years ago than it is today.

The perceptual basis of locational conflict exhibits both change and continuity over time. Newly industrializing cities of the nineteenth century provided a context in which proximity to the coal smoke and pollution emitted by mills and factories was perceived as beneficial, no doubt due to an association with steady employment and economic prosperity (Meyer and Brown 1989). In contrast, public awareness of the health hazards of industrial activity is one of the most frequent sources of locational conflict today. A common focus of protest in 1870s Worcester were the millponds which, despite their obvious economic importance, were thought to generate ‘miasma,’ believed to be a disease-bearing atmospheric poison produced by decaying organic matter (Meyer and Brown 1989). The parallel to today’s conflicts over siting waste incinerators is striking. Both the millponds then and the incinerators now are considered necessary adjuncts to essential economic activity but both were and are also perceived to present risks to health and the environment. Both, consequently, are said to produce the NIMBY syndrome: yes, society needs the facility – but Not In My Backyard.

2. Antecedents and Conceptual Approaches

Formal analysis of locational conflict by American geographers began in the early 1970s as an extension of classical economic location theory. Classical theories of industrial and residential location presented a model of locational choice by autonomous units (firms or households) seeking to maximize individual utility functions within budget constraints. Political geographers such as Kevin Cox and his students at Ohio State University challenged the assumption of autonomous locational decision-making by recognizing that individual utilities are not independent of the externality effects produced by the locational decisions of others (Cox and McCarthy 1980). Conflict ensues when the utility of a locational choice is diminished by the negative externalities generated by the locational choices of others. This extension of traditional location theory shifted analysis away from individual locational choice towards a focus on the manipulation of the spatial distribution of externalities, that is, on attempts to exclude negative externalities and attract positive ones. While classical location theory addressed individual locational decision-making within a framework of economic rationality, locational conflict theory examines collective strategies for the protection and enhancement of neighborhood quality within a framework of collective political action. As a result, the focus of analysis moved from the economic to the political arena, from individual choice to collective action, and from locational decision-making to locational conflict as a politics of turf.

The view of locational conflict as turf politics, however, retains an axiomatic assumption of traditional location theory. The central assumption in this behavioral approach is that conflict arises when a locational decision perceived as beneficial by some is perceived negatively by others. While focus has shifted to collective action, the impetus for political engagement still resides in the individual’s perception of positive or negative consequences associated with a proposed locational decision. The active agent is the autonomous individual whose behavior is guided by a unique calculus of perception, whether locational conflict is situated within an individual choice framework of conflicting utilities or in the pluralist politics of neighborhood change.

Situated at the level of conflicting perceptions, the behavioral approach to locational conflict rarely considers why changes occur in local areas such that conflict arises over their perceived positive or negative consequences. A structuralist approach views locational conflicts as symptomatic of fundamental contradictions situated within the basic structure of society. Locational conflicts, in this view, are merely surface manifestations of deep-seated conflicts inherent in the extant system of social organization (Cox and McCarthy 1980). Within a structural mode of explanation, negative externalities are not viewed simply as evidence of market imperfections subject to correction but rather are understood as necessary and inevitable consequences of class relations within the process of capital accumulation.

Identifying the particular structural contradictions that become manifest as locational conflict, however, is itself a subject of conflict and disagreement. In one view, the inherent contradiction between labor and capital generates contradictory orientations to neighborhoods, such that labor’s attachment to place based on the neighborhood’s use value conflicts with capital’s investment interest based on the neighborhood’s exchange value. Locational conflict, in this framework, arises from the fundamental antagonism between labor and capital with respect to neighborhood change. In another view, locational conflict is situated within the incessant competition between factions of capital, and results when the expansionary interests of mobile capital conflict with the exclusionary interests of capital already fixed in place (Plotkin 1987). For example, existing investors seeking to exclude potential new competitors may resist a shopping center developer’s search for new investment sites. Bridging these two approaches is a third view in which labor’s attachment to neighborhood erects a barrier to continued accumulation of capital. In response, capital encourages long-running societal processes—the homogenization of space, pervasive ideologies of materialism and consumerism, media manipulation and mass education, and increasing residential mobility, among other contributing factors—which succeed in transforming neighborhoods from communities into commodities and, consequently, transforming labor’s attachment to community into an orientation based on protecting neighborhood exchange value (Cox 1981). Now locational conflict occurs when the exchange value interests of capital and labor fail to coincide as, for example, when a land developer’s proposal for a shopping center generates traffic and pollution that threaten to reduce the resale value of surrounding homes.

More recently, a post-structuralist approach has emerged that situates locational conflict within the antagonistic discursive or representational strategies of contending groups vying for control over the use of space, where such control is an expression of political power. Rejecting the view of space as simply a container for action, this approach, influenced by the work of Lefebvre (1991) and others, considers the social and political process through which the meaning and use of space are constructed in particular instances. Now locational conflict is not primarily about the spatial distribution of activities or land uses nor is it simply about contrasting preferences for various activities in particular locations. Rather, locational conflict is symbolic conflict over the social distribution of power to assign meaning and uses to space (Mitchell 1992). Locational conflict symbolizes contention over whose values have standing within the political process and whose values, therefore, become expressed in the landscape. Recursively, control over the use of space symbolically constitutes the controlling group as a legitimate actor within the broader political process. Establishment of a squatter settlement within an affluent residential neighborhood despite the opposition of existing residents, for example, provides a site for housing impoverished families. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it discursively represents squatter families as legitimate occupants of space and, therefore, legitimate participants in the political process.

The evolution of locational conflict theory from classical to behavioral, to structural, and post-structural formulations parallels theoretical developments in the field of geography as a whole. Underlying each of these theoretical positions is a set of often incommensurate assumptions regarding the relative autonomy of individual actors, the primacy of market processes, the nature of the public interest, and the respective roles of structure and agency in creating geographic landscapes. In addition, the various theoretical understandings of locational conflict point to substantially different routes for its amelioration or resolution. A behavioral model of conflict based on contrasting perceptions suggests that resolution is attainable through public information and education designed to bring perceptions into agreement. A model of conflict based on the unequal spatial distribution of negative externalities suggests the use of compensation to equalize outcomes. Understanding conflict as symptomatic of deep underlying structural relations requires the elimination of structural contradictions. A focus on locational conflict as the symbolic expression of rights to create the meaning of space requires the deconstruction of opposing claims and their reconstruction in more equitable forms. Far from being merely an academic exercise, one’s theoretical approach to locational conflict implicates significantly different avenues for its resolution, as discussed in the following section.

3. Resol ing Locational Conflict

The contentious character of locational conflict has generated considerable debate over the intervention strategies conducive to its resolution. Approaches to intervention differ according to their proponents’ understanding of the sources and dynamics of conflict, as described above, and according to their focus on the varying perspectives of conflict participants. Methods of resolving conflict distinguish between communitycentered, user-centered, and state-centered approaches (Takahashi 1998 and DeVerteuil 2000).

3.1 Community-centered Approaches

Community-centered approaches focus on community opposition to a proposed facility siting. Depending on the characteristics of the community and, in part, on the perspective of the analyst, local opposition can be interpreted as exclusionary parochialism or as constitutionally protected freedom of speech and dissent (Takahashi 1998). Those taking the latter perspective point to instances in which poor or politically marginalized communities succeed in preventing the siting of an environmentally hazardous or otherwise noxious facility and consider that conflict has been resolved through defeat of the siting proposal (Heiman 1990).

More frequently, and especially when phrased in the NIMBY characterization, locational conflict is viewed as a shortsighted and parochial expression of selfinterest that prevents achievement of the greater public good. Their proponents present the facilities whose siting generates locational conflict as both necessary and beneficial for society. A mobile society needs highways and airports. Consumers expect convenient access to shopping. Production of wastes is an inevitable by-product of a consumer society and requires safe and reliable disposal capacity. New prison construction keeps dangerous criminals off the streets and prevents prison overcrowding.

From this vantage point, conflict over siting proposals poses a barrier to attainment of the public good and requires a strategy to overcome, elude, or defuse opposition in order to allow the siting to go forward. Some professional associations of land and real estate developers offer guidelines and training to assist their members to negotiate the hazards of community opposition to proposed developments. Such strategies counsel facility proponents to anticipate opposition, solicit statements of support from potential allies, marshal expert testimony for public presentation, demonstrate the anticipated benefits of the proposed scheme, utilize formal appeals procedures, and the like.

Compensation of affected parties is a central premise within the community-centered approach. If locational conflict arises from the unequal spatial distribution of negative externalities created by the sited facility, then conflict can be resolved through compensation of those bearing a disproportionate share of costs. The theory of compensation assumes that costs are susceptible to translation into a single monetary metric and that a fair system can be devised for identifying affected parties and distributing payment. Such a system is difficult to devise in practice, however. It is difficult to distinguish between payment as compensation of costs and as inducement to accept costs, and communities often reject compensation as synonymous with a bribe. It is relatively easy to compensate for direct costs associated with a newly sited facility, such as additional emergency response equipment, but it is more difficult to assess a value for indirect costs such as stigmatization or economic growth foregone when potential investors avoid proximity to a noxious facility. There is disagreement as to whether costs should be compensated at an equal level in an impoverished and an affluent community. On purely economic grounds, the impoverished community can receive less compensation because poor people are satisfied at a relatively lower cost but this conclusion can easily be challenged on ethical grounds. Compensation as a means of resolving locational conflict is problematic for these and other reasons.

Some practitioners adopting the community-centered approach choose siting strategies based on equity considerations. Such strategies typically distinguish between the goals of procedural equity in decisionmaking and distributional equity in outcomes. Approaches based on distributive justice assume the necessity of the facilities in question and seek to achieve a fair distribution, where the primary criterion of fairness is to avoid neighborhood concentrations of unwanted facilities. One such method is to devise a point system for desirable and undesirable facilities (parks and libraries in the former category, for example, and waste incinerators and sewage treatment plants in the latter) and to equalize points across neighborhoods or political jurisdictions. Localities might be encouraged to opt for an undesirable facility so as to qualify for a desirable one under this system or might be disqualified from obtaining a beneficial facility due to insufficient points for hosting undesirable ones. The obvious difficulty in assigning points to facility types, however, has prevented this system from being implemented in practice. New York city’s legislatively mandated fair share process for distributing unwanted city facilities across neighborhoods similarly has been abandoned in practice due to difficulties of implementation.

Community-centered approaches based on procedural justice argue that public opposition is mobilized not only by unwanted siting outcomes but also by perceived unfairness in the decision-making process. At a minimum, the procedural solution takes the form of a mandated hearing within a public review or permitting process. The public hearing has been criticized as a means of facilitating public participation, however, on the grounds that it is rarely more than advisory and that important decisions, such as the need for the facility, have usually been taken prior to the hearing. More detailed procedural approaches stress the importance of community consultation early in the siting process, inclusion of all stakeholders in negotiations, and the opportunity for sites to withdraw from consideration at any time. The most fully developed approach within this framework allows localities to volunteer themselves as sites for controversial facilities, subject to specified siting criteria and in return for generous compensation. This approach elides difficult ethical questions, however, if localities volunteer for controversial facilities not through choice but due to a lack of alternative means of economic survival.

3.2 User-centered Approaches

The user-centered approach usually applies to conflict over social service facility location. This approach moves beyond the perspectives of siting proponents and opponents and considers the perspective of facility users who often experience extreme poverty and or physical, social, or mental disability as a barrier to access to needed services (Takahashi 1998). Omission of the users’ perspective in community-centered approaches both reflects and contributes to their stigmatization. While equity in community-centered approaches focuses on community participation in facility siting decisions, equity in the user-centered approach is concerned with facilitating access to needed facilities on the part of service-dependent clients. Residents and users of homeless shelters, drug or alcohol rehabilitation centers, domestic violence shelters, group homes, and similar facilities are often dependent on multiple services and benefit from service clustering that other community residents view as an undue concentration of unwanted facilities.

Social service providers choose from two divergent strategies in countering local opposition (Dear 1992). The collaborative approach seeks to establish a partnership between the service provider and the host community through public outreach and education aimed at improving awareness, tolerance, and acceptance. The autonomous approach considers access to needed services to be a civil right of facility users and relies on legislative and judicial protections to override community opposition.

3.3 State-centered Approaches

The state-centered approach to locational conflict reformulates the traditional question of locational conflict—‘Why is the community opposed to this facility?’—and asks instead: ‘Why is the state seeking to site this facility in this community?’ (Lake and Disch 1992). This rephrased question problematizes the assumption, shared by community and usercentered approaches, that facilities are needed by society. In the state-centered approach, controversial facilities are understood as needed by capital seeking to externalize costs as a competitive strategy and as an expedient solution for the state seeking to facilitate capital accumulation while maintaining legitimation of the capital-labor relationship (Lake 1993).

Facility siting in this context constitutes a particular problem-solving strategy that is instrumental for the state. By providing a locational solution to a problem of industrial production (waste production or homelessness, for example), facility siting allows production and capital accumulation to continue relatively unimpeded while concentrating costs on host communities. The decision to concentrate costs on communities rather than on capital reflects a political calculation that it is preferable for the state to confront localized political conflict than to risk a challenge to the capitalstate relation. The siting strategy deflects political conflict away from a potentially daunting challenge to the capital-state relation and into a relatively benign debate over the merits of alternative facility locations (Lake and Disch 1992).

According to the state-centered approach, the root of locational conflict is situated not in the consequences of hosting a controversial facility but rather in a regulatory approach that inexorably leads to facility siting as a policy solution that concentrates costs on host communities. To the extent that this is the case, the resolution of conflict requires a restructuring of policy assumptions and policy solutions through political debate, redirecting costs from host communities back on to capital, and avoiding the emergence of conflict at its source rather than seeking to ameliorate its occurrence after the fact.

4. Future Directions: Ethical and Social Justice Issues

Recent locational conflict scholarship has increasingly intersected with the literature of environmental racism and environmental justice. This coalescence emerges from a common conceptual focus on equity and on the distinction between distributive and procedural equity, in particular. Influenced in part by development of the state-centered approach, locational conflict scholarship is increasingly shifting attention from siting outcomes to examine political and structural influences on the siting process. This shift closely parallels a redirection within environmental justice scholarship from a focus on distributional equity, concerned with the concentration of environmental burdens in disempowered communities, to a focus on procedural equity, concerned with democratic participation in the gamut of prior decisions affecting the production of burdens and benefits to be distributed (Lake 1996). Recent environmental justice literature explicitly seeks to relinquish its narrow focus on inequity in facility siting, emphasizing instead the pervasive inequity in the broad socio-spatial processes creating geographic landscapes (Pulido 2000). The challenge for these increasingly combined spheres of scholarship is to expand understanding of these processes and to inform the design of institutional structures that expand community participation in their operation.


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