Strong local networks can stop unwanted dams, airports and other controversial projects

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Local communities have greater influence on national issues than many people realize, especially when it comes to opposing controversial facilities, says a Purdue University political scientist.

Daniel Aldrich, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University
Daniel Aldrich

“Despite the goals of national governments and financial and administrative pressures, communities that are unified and organized can work together to block projects, such as unwanted nuclear power plants, dams, landfills or athletic arenas,” says Daniel P. Aldrich, an assistant professor of political science.

“Many planners often believe that we can solve major problems such as global warming solely through the application of new technologies. While wind farms, nuclear power plants, ethanol distilleries and carbon sequestration pipes may indeed be potential solutions for excess carbon dioxide, these projects must be approved by local communities in order for plans to move forward. In many cases, developers trying to build these plants have been forced back to the drawing board.”

For example, in the 1990s Minnesota state government planners wanting to construct a new landfill were forced instead to begin creative recycling programs when local opposition stymied their plans, Aldrich says.

“This resistance forced them to reconsider their thinking on the issue of waste disposal, and the solution ended up being better for all involved,” he says.

The power of small, rural communities is often overlooked because it is assumed they will have fewer resources for protests and demonstrations, Aldrich says.

“Instead, the strength of local community groups, whether based around religious organization, unions and social clubs, even in comparatively poor areas, proves to be a more significant factor,” says Aldrich, who has analyzed where controversial facilities are built. “Local residents who hear of a proposed facility in their backyard should work to ensure that they are all on the same page and that they can demonstrate unified resistance over the long run. Planners often seek communities for unpopular projects that they believe are fragmented and have weak civic involvement.”

Local residents who can sustain resistance to unwanted projects over the long term are most likely to be successful in fighting off these projects, Aldrich says. Those areas where residents are divided and unable to work cooperatively for extended periods are the areas seen by developers as good targets.

Aldrich is author of the book “Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West,” which analyzed where policy-makers and authorities placed controversial facilities in Japan, France and the United States. He points out the distance (25 miles) from downtown Denver to its new airport as an example of recognition by authorities that projects should be placed far from potential resistance.

Aldrich’s research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the IIE Fulbright Foundation, the Center for European Studies at Harvard and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard.

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