Not All Developers Are Boogeymen

So why do people hate developers so much? UCLA conducted a study to examine just that, and their conclusion boils down to two primary reasons. First, developers generally get in and out of the market as quickly as possible to reduce risk, limiting their ability to engage with the community. Second, people do not like that developers make money by building public and private space (Holder, 2018).

City planning and management requires work from many different stakeholders. To build roads, community centers, schools, housing, etc., cities depend on developers and inevitably work with them. However, there is a large problem in this area: when going into interactions with developers, the community members and representatives are prepared for battle. There is an assumption that developers are boogeymen that have dollar signs as pupils.

It is important to explore this disillusionment with developers because cities always have and will continue to rely on them to help keep up with the changing design, structure, aesthetic and functionality of densely populated areas as they grow in area and density. Cities rely on developers to help manage this growth, so there needs to be a strong relationship here to optimize the results. There needs to be more cohesion in the relationship between developers and communities; a sense of trustworthiness so that there is a baseline where all stakeholders are on the same page about the overall goals of projects.

To be fair, many developers are driven by dollars alone, with little regard for impacts on the surrounding area. Holder (2018) argues that this is because only cutthroat developers can survive the restrictive zoning laws and fees. She notes that “when city policies and zoning regulations make development more difficult, the developers who prosper are more likely to be the richest, nastiest, and most aggressive.” This argument essentially suggests that survival of the fittest makes ugly, mean developers that can turn large profits the ones that thrive in the marketplace, pushing lovely, community-focused developers out of the picture. I agree – it’s plainly the survival of the fittest. As they say, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Holder offers a straightforward solution to this problems: make development easier (through cutting developers some slack relevant to unnecessarily strict zoning laws and land-use policies) so that other developers can keep their head above water in such a ruthless industry. But perhaps a reduction on regulations would not change situations where more ruthless developers box out smaller, community-minded developers from new opportunities.

This negative sentiment towards real estate developers does not only live in the city planning world; it has saturated popular culture. “A reliable rule of thumb: In Hollywood, the developer is never the hero” (Hogan 2017). A variety of films are driven entirely by a developer v. community conflict. In It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), ‘good’ developer George Bailey faces off with ‘mean’ developer Mr. Potter about affordable housing. In Superman (1978), Lex Luthor wants to sink the entire state of California, transforming his desert property into the new West coast, making him millions. One Crazy Summer (1986) follows a group of wild teenagers that fight a greedy developer to protect their neighborhood. In the recent film Up (2009), a long-time resident uses balloons to save his home from development in his area. Even in modern children’s series Phineas and Ferb, the villain Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz constantly talks about his dreams to transform the tri-state area to his liking. (Hogan, 2017)

The “Real Life Up House.” Photo Credit: Wikimapia

This unspoken understanding that developers are evil has to change; both parties should not go into negotiations with the expectation for conflict. However, the reality of the situation is that developers and cities have competing interests. Cities want low costs and high quality, and developers want low production costs and high profits. Both groups have to work together to find the best solutions. It is worth noting that a more collaborative relationship can be tricky to navigate. This is highlighted by the UCLA study previously mentioned, which essentially concludes that when cities work more closely with developers to get things done, residents loose trust in city planners and local government rather than more gain confidence in developers (Holder, 2018).

Developers are essentially curators of our cities because they create space for specific uses in the densest, most popular areas (Sowers, 2017). As businessmen, they want to supply what is demanded to make the best profits, in the safest, cheapest way (Badger, 2012). To make negotiations run smoother, to encourage developers to get more invested in the community, and to hearten residents, the cities, communities and developers have to find a way to work together and not against each other. Behind these stakeholder roles are people that have motivations and are capable of personal connections, which can alter the course of projects.

So what now? Developers need to be at town hall meetings to talk through the impacts of previous projects, and plans for future ones. Cities should consider prioritizing locally-based developers that might have a personal connection to the landscapes they will transform. Residents and developers should talk, rather than keep each other at arm’s length. The sole solution is more conversation, for it is conversation that inspires innovative thinking and problem-solving.


About the Author: Olivia Corriere is an undergraduate student from Ann Arbor, Michigan, majoring in Environmental Studies (Sustainability Track) and minoring in Geography. She is particularly interested in the implementation of sustainable practices of all kinds in the daily lives of the public. During Summer 2017, she interned with the Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative with the Karen’s Trail campaign. In her free time, she enjoys running, creating music playlists, and spending time in coffee shops with friends.


Badger, Emily. “Why Don’t Real Estate Developers Just Ask Us What We Want?” CityLab, CityLab, 8 Mar. 2012,

Holder, Sarah. “Maybe NIMBYs Don’t Hate New Housing: They Just Hate Developers.” CityLab, CityLab, 14 Sept. 2018,

Hogan, Mark. “A Holiday Salute to the Evil Developer, Hollywood’s Most Reliable Villain.” CityLab, CityLab, 25 Dec. 2017,

Sowers, Scott. “Real Estate Developers Become the Entertainers.” CityLab, CityLab, 26 Oct. 2017,