The social impact of transportation in Urban Regions: The case of the university avenue street widening
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ENVIRON IMPACT ASSESS REV 1986:6:301-315" 301
THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF TRANSPORTATION IN URBAN REGIONS: THE CASE OF THE UNIVERSITY AVENUE STREET WIDENING
PATRICK C. WEST
Environmental impact statements (EIS) on transportation projects far outnumber any other type of project impact statement (Enk 1973), and the most important impacts of transportation projects in urban regions are social impacts. The con- sideration of social impacts of urban transportation developments is one of the more important areas for the application of sociology to environmental impact assessment.
This article analyzes the social impact and community response to one common type of urban transportation project, street widening. Growth in population and motorized travel in urban areas place intolerable stress on old street and road networks. However, human settlement and social organization that have grown up organically around the vital arteries and veins of urban life are threatened by the attempts of highway engineers to "operate" on the circulation system.
In this article, a typical street widening in a small urbanized area (Green Bay, Wisconsin) illustrates these strains and the potential use of sociological theory and methods to analyze social impact and community response. The term so- ciological is defined here to mean the analysis of patterns and dynamics of social organization and interaction within human communities. Of particular concern will be sociological analyses of processes relevant to such projects in lower social strata areas. Because of these social processes operating in such areas, neither direct survey results nor community pressure are adequate to bring social impact considerations into the decision-making process. Improved sociological analysis can highlight such discrepancies, but only changes in the legal structure can force implementation of enlightened decision making.
1986 Elsevier Science Publishing Co., Inc. 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 0195-9255/86/$3.50
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The Study Community Green Bay and its surrounding communities comprise a small but rapidly growing urbanized area. It is located at the southern tip of Green Bay and forms a major industrial and transportation center in northeast Wisconsin. The work force is drawn from the hinterland of predominantly East European Catholic farming communities. Community social organization tends to be traditional, locally oriented, and stable with tight local community bonds.
As Green Bay grew, its old networks of narrow streets and two-lane arteries laid down in earlier years were selectively widened to accommodate the increased traffic flow. The arteries widened first became the central lines of commercial strip development. More recently, a widened street, Mason Street, was saved from this fate when the city planning commission prevented conversion to strip development through zoning laws. Even so, the predominantly elderly and blue collar residents of the street now huddle in the back of their run-down rental houses and wonder what was gained as the trucks and motorcycles rumble by. The Mason Street project had its social impact ritual, but since no state or federal monies were involved there were no formal assessment requirements and little was done to consider social impact seriously. The next comparable project, the planned widening of University Avenue, held the promise of a more rational decision process because both federal and state EIS requirements were involved (Fig. 1).
The University Avenue Widening Project University Avenue is one of two continuous arterial routes that connect the center of the city to the eastern city limits. It is a major truck route and connects commercial, residential, and industrial land uses along the route. Traffic pro- jections show increasing pressures on this major artery. The street is below standards in terms of road conditions and width, and accident rates are high, especially at key intersections.
The proposed widening was planned in four phases at different sections along the route, to be completed over a three-year period. A class in Environmental Impact Analysis taught by the author was informally engaged to conduct a social impact study of the proposed widening. The official impact statement was pre- pared by an engineering consultant firm. A citizens' advisory committee was formed early in the planning process to advise the public works department. However, this functioned mainly as an instrument of formal co-optation (Selznik 1966) to transmit proposals and seek legitimacy rather than as a mechanism for sharing actual decision-making power. Broader citizen participation was per- mitted only after the development of the draft impact statement.
THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF TRANSPORTATION IN URBAN REGIONS 303
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FIGURE 1. University Avenue Project Location Source: US Department of Transportation 1977.
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Social Profile of the Community Impact Zone Prior to the Widening In considering the social preconditions of a project and its social impact, it is first important to consider the relevant social boundaries of the affected com- munity. Some have posited the use of community identification through social network analysis and determination of common cultures (Hendricks and Vlachos n.d.). Others have operated more pragmatically to determine the boundaries of probable "impact zones" surrounding a project (Appleyard and Carp 1974). The class adopted the second mode of boundary determination for the bulk of its analysis, but the wider community network boundaries also played a role in determining social constraints on community response. The immediate impact zone was defined as all sides of blocks immediately adjacent to University Avenue, and all sides of all blocks adjacent to streets being considered as al- ternative routes.
Block census data were used to determine the social profile of persons within the alternative impact zones. Social profile dimensions included:
(1) the number of people, (2) the number and percent of people that were:
(a) less than 18 years old (b) over the age of 62,
(3) the number and percent of owner-occupied houses, (4) the number and percent of renter-occupied houses, and (5) the average value of owner-occupied houses.
The social profile analysis (Table 1) reveals that the proposed corridor would have the lowest total number of people affected, the lowest percentage of people in the "less than 18 years old" age bracket, the lowest number of owner-occupied homes, and the lowest average home value. Housing values in general indicate that, for the most part, the entire area of the city is primarily a low-income neighborhood.
Social profile data were also gathered from a social survey of a random sample of residents from the impact zone along the main route. These data show that most persons are long-time residents (Table 2), that occupational levels tend to be low (Table 3), and that a great deal of social neighboring occurs (Table 4).
Behavioral observations were also made on preproject social patterns of pe- destrian behavior along this street. The main characteristics observed were bi- cycles and pedestrian traffic, children's play patterns, and street crossings. A team of observers recorded frequency and location of use on observation sched- ules at sample times and locations along the route over a three-month period. A total of 72 hours and 3,190 persons were systematically observed. The data on play patterns is a good example of the use of observation in establishing the social preconditions of a project. Play group activity where potential safety
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TABLE 1. Social Profile Analysis of Alternative Corridors From Block Census Data
Proposed Other Alternatives Alternative
D1 D2 D3 D4 D5
Total number of people 2763 5273 3166 4168 3512
Number under 18 years old 927 1881 1188 1517 1173 Percent under 18 years old 33% 35% 37% 36% 33%
Number over 62 years old 396 720 315 589 477 Percent over 62 years old 14% 19% 9% 14% 13.6%
Total number of homes 942 1768 944 1452 1198
Number owner-occupied homes 496 986 646 728 607 Percent owner-occupied homes 52.6% 55.8% 64.9% 50.1% 50.7%
Number renter-occupied homes 446 782 298 724 591 Percent renter-occupied homes 47.4% 44.2% 35.1% 49.9% 49.3%
Average value of owner- $12,175 $13,707 $12,862 $12,637 $13,738 occupied homes
impacts would be greatest were found in two areas, from Clay Street to St. George Street and from St. George Street to Irwin Street. That finding was strengthened by comparing it with census data that showed that these two sites have the largest proportion of children along the route. From this data, which shows a marked spatial variation in pedestrian use, suggestions were made for mitigating measures to minimize social impacts of the widening.
TABLE 2. Length of Residence of Sample Persons in the Impact Zone
Length of Residence Percent
Less than one year 13.1%
1-2 years 11.4%
3 ~, years 18%
5 years or more 57.4%
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TABLE 3. Occupation Structure of Impact Zone Residents From 1975 Social Surve,,*
Labor (including operatives) 31.6%
*Missing data excluded.
Social Impact and Community Response This section discusses objective measures and social considerations in the pre- diction of expected social impacts, and then analyzes the actual behavioral re- sponse of residents in the political decision-making process.
Much can be learned about the probable social impacts from the social profile of preconditions. From the census analysis it was shown that in choosing among corridor alternatives, the least severe impacts would occur by selecting the pro-
TABLE 4. Frequency of Social Visits Crossing University Avenue by Location on Impact Zone Blocks*
Front Side Back
More than 4 times per week 18.8% 10.5% 18.8%
2-4 times a week 31.2% 0% 6.2%
About once a week 18.8% 0% 18.8%
About once every two weeks 0% 0% 18.7%
About once a month 6.2% 5.3% 12.5%
Less than once a month 25.0% 84.2% 25.0%
*Missing data excluded.
THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF TRANSPORTATION IN URBAN REGIONS 307
posed route. The observation studies showed where the greatest potential impacts would occur along the routes, etc.
However, in assessing what the social impact will be after the construction of the project, social impact analysts also frequently rely on social surveys to determine the perceived expected impacts and responses from potentially affected persons. This process involves some important methodological and substantive problems that must be investigated if we are to improve the predictive power of such analyses. We will explore these issues for the University Avenue case by discussing the problems encountered in assessing the main impact problem-- the social impact of noise.
The main methodological problem involved in using social surveys to predict the social impact of noise is that responses will be strongly influenced by widely varying perceptions of the objective consequences of the project. For example, the attitude toward the project and the perception of its social impact depend strongly on the respondents' perceptions of how much the noise would increase with widening. To test for this effect the following question was asked: "Do you feel the proposed widening of University Avenue would cause: increased traffic noise; no significant change; don't know?" Forty-five percent of the respondents felt that traffic noise would increase; 25 percent felt that there would be no significant change. Of those who felt noise would increase, only 21 percent said the widening was needed. On the other hand, of those who felt there would be no significant noise increase, 75 percent felt the widening was needed. Since independent objective projections of the probable noise increase estimates that noise will probably double, results would have been quite different had all respondents perceived this.
One way to handle this problem would be to provide objective informational statements about expected changes in key parameters, in such a way that is understandable, unbiased, and presents the same informational stimulus to all respondents. Because of the uncertainty in assessing these parameters objectively, and the power of such stimuli to affect responses, such techniques must be used with extreme caution.
Because of the methodological problems of anticipating social impacts from respondents' social surveys, other supplementary methods need to be employed. One alternative is to use social surveys to assess the importance to residents of minimizing various types of impacts, rather than having them estimate how severe social impacts will be along any given dimension. Each dimension can be ranked separately on some important scale, but it may be more useful to obtain comparative ranking of the various social impact dimensions under con- sideration. Instead of asking respondents to give rank order to all dimensions simultaneously, it is methodologically preferable to ask ranking questions by pairing two dimensions at a time with a series of questions combing the possible pairs of dimensions (Sellitz et al. 1976). The social impact dimensions considered in the University Avenue ranking questions were:
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(l) increasing park and playground areas of this neighborhood, (2) preventing the removal of existing homes along University Avenue, (3) minimizing increased noise for residents, (4) minimizing traffic hazards for motorists, and (5) reducing noise levels inside churches, schools, and libraries.
The paired questions were asked in a form that also allowed respondents to equate the importance of two dimensions (which multiple ranking questions do not permit). Table 5 shows the paired comparisons between residential noise and traffic hazards as an example. Overall, all factors tended to be relatively close in importance. Each of these factors should be weighted equally in deciding among alternatives. The fact that residents seemed to be equally concerned with minimizing traffic hazards for motorists and for minimizing noise to residents in public institutions tended to favor an alternative of permitting the street wid- ening but with mitigating measures to reduce noise (e.g., compensating residents for noise-proofing measures).
Another alternative to social survey assessment of the expected social impacts is the use of comparative case methods in which post facto social impact studies are conducted on highly comparable cases. We were fortunate in having such a comparable case, the Mason Street widening. Mason Street is in the same city, runs through similar types of community neighborhoods, and is experiencing similar traffic pressures and noise levels. After Mason Street was widened a thorough study of noise levels and the social impact on noise annoyance was done by Chris Bosman-Clark (1975). Using both the findings from our preper- turbation survey, and Bosman-Clark's comparable postperturbation impact study,
TABLE 5. Comparative Importance of Minimizing Noise and Traffic Hazards for Motorists by Location on Impact Zone Blocks*
If University Avenue is widened, Location on Block which of the following is most important to you: Front Side Back
Minimizing increased noise for 26.3% 5.3% 22.2% residents
Minimizing traffic hazards for 21.1% 36.8% 22.2% motorists
Both are equally important to me 42.1% 42.1% 50.0%
Don't know 10.5% 0% 0%
Doesn't matter to me 0% 15.8% 5.6%
*Missing data excluded.
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some substantive issues in assessing the social impact of noise from the University Avenue widening will be considered in detail. A brief discussion of current noise levels, projected noise levels, and measures of annoyance in behavioral inter- ference along University Avenue is needed as a background to this discussion.
Noise Levels and Behavioral Interference Along University Avenue Preproject noise levels both inside and outside homes directly facing University Avenue already exceed federal noise standards. Two independent studies estab- lished that exterior noise levels currently exceed the recommended maximum levels of 70 dBAs (West et al. 1975). Inside noise levels equal or exceed the maximum recommended level (55 dBA) at nine of the 13 sites in our data.
Two studies addressed projected noise levels. Dr. Charles Matter, a University of Wisconsin noise expert, projected a doubling of noise (roughly 9 dBA) (Mat- ter's unpublished research findings are quoted in West et al. 1975.); the official draft impact statement projected only a 3 dBA increase (a doubling of the energy level on a logarithmic scale) (US Department of Transportation 1977). In either case, the total noise level expected would be very high. The official impact statement attempted to downplay the noise impact by giving attention only to the incremental increase, rather than to the total noise impact that significantly exceeds Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) standards.
What do these levels mean in human terms? Table 6 shows the response of the subgroup of our survey respondents who live directly on University Avenue to various behavioral measures of interference with day-to-day living and social interaction. Of those who live on the front of blocks directly facing University Avenue, 66 percent experienced difficulty listening to TV, radio, or records; 79 percent experienced interference with conversations in their front yards; 55 per- cent had moderate or great disturbance of sleep; and 66 percent found it necessary to keep the windows shut during the summer. When noise increases even further beyond the FHWA standards, the indicators can be expected to be further ag- gravated. Beyond these basic indicators of noise impact there are other substan- tive considerations in assessing the social impact of noise along University Avenue.
Some Sociological Considerations in the Social Impact of Urban Transportation Noise It is often assumed that the social impact of noise is (1) directly proportional to the intensity of the noise and (2) is caused directly by the noise itself (EPA 1971). An analysis of these assumptions reveals that these seemingly obvious assumptions are often not true.
From a sociological perspective we are cued to theoretically expect the physical effects of noise on people to be filtered through the symbolic definitions and
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TABLE 6. Behavioral Indicators of Noise Interference for Residents Directly Facing University Avenue*
Don't Great Some Little None Know
Interference with 55.5% 11.1% 16.7% 16.7% 0% listening to TV, radio, records
Interference with 57.9% 21% 15.7% 5.3% 0% conversation in front yard
Interference with 15.8% 42.1% 0% 36.8% conversations in the house
Disturbance of 38.9% 16.7% 22.2% 11.1% 11. 1% sleep
Need to keep 5.5% windows closed 66.7% 27.8% in summer due to street noise
*Missing data excluded.
meanings that a person internalizes through his cultures and subcultures (Klausner 1971). It is the social definition of the physical noise, not just the noise that determines the social impact itself. It is not surprising that noise annoyance does not always correlate neatly with empirical noise levels (Klausner 1971; Com- mittee on the Problem of Noise 1963), or that when exposed to essentially the same noise level people's reactions vary widely (Bosman-Clark 1975). A given noise source will have less impact, for instance, when it is perceived as necessary (Klausner 1971; Cohen 1964).
However, in addition to social variation in response to noise it has been found that people's reactions to noise involve more than noise per se. People often react to noise as an indicator of some other perceived danger. It has been found, for instance, that the noise of landing aircraft is often more annoying to those who fear the aircraft will crash. Bosman-Clark (1975) tested this notion in his noise impact analysis from the Mason Street widening and hypothesized that variations in levels of annoyance from the same noise source would be explained by the symbolic identification of noise with the fear of vehicles crashing into homes on this recently widened street. It was hypothesized that this would be especially so for persons with children, due to the perceived danger. He found
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a strong correlation between level of annoyance and the presence of children that tends to support this hypothesis. In drawing implications for the University Avenue impact analysis case, we suggested, on the basis of this comparable postproject research, that mitigating measures to reduce the fear of crashes and pedestrian accidents (such as raised curbs, guard rails, or fences) may be one effective way of reducing the social impact and annoyance due to increased noise from the project.
It has often been suggested that the level of citizen complaint can be used as a behavioral indicator of the social impact of noise. This indicator has been institutionalized in guidelines by federal agencies dealing with urban transpor- tation noise. It is a convenient indicator for planners and engineers who operate on the political principle that the "squeaky wheel should get the grease" as a means of minimizing public conflict. However, an analysis of the assumptions behind this indicator reveals that it can have little relation to actual social impact, and that where it is adopted it will tend to bias decision making in favor of certain groups for whom the actual impact may be no greater. This. measure assumes that all persons who are equally affected will participate equally in the public complaint process.
Klausner has suggested that certain groups may have norms that sanction persons to complain even though the personal impact of noise may be minimal. He observes:
A norm is not only a reflection of attitudes but reflects the interaction of attitudes and other factors in a structure of relations. To illustrate the possible disjunction between individual attitudes and social norms, a study made by the National Academy of Sciences Committee  supposed that a population might come to accept sonic booms of supersonic transports quite passively while suffering extensive annoyance and disturbance as individuals. Con- trarywise, a population might as individuals suffer relatively little annoyance and disturbance, yet generate such a level of complaining behavior and of community reaction as to make the situation politically difficult [Klausner 1971].
Where social groups with norms of community complaint against certain technological and engineering actions exist, the indicators of complaint levels will tend to favor these "squeaky wheels" in the decision process quite inde- pendent of actual social impact.
If level of citizen complaint cannot be used as a valid social indicator of noise impacts or urban transport systems, then can surveys of noise annoyance be used as unbiased measures? I would suggest that Klausner's thesis of independent norm effects applies also to publicly expressed attitudes on surveys.
I would also suggest that variations in the intensity of these norms tend to fall along cleavages in the status group structure. Numerous studies have found that noise annoyance correlates with indicators of social stratification. Why does this correlation exist? Weber's theory of status group communities provides an im- portant supplement to Klausner's basic perception. Weber defines status groups as social communities based on social honor, in contrast to "class situation,"
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which is based on strictly economic life chances (Weber 1966). Because status groups are communities they can enforce conformity to visible styles of life, to what Weber called "status group conventions" or norms about behavior, appro- priate tastes and attitudes, dress, speech, and the like.
I have elsewhere shown that status group theory can be used to understand the dynamics of leisure life-styles (West 1977). I suspect that the social response to noise is also strongly influenced by the vocabularies of status group conven- tions. Bosman-Clark's study of residential noise annoyance on Mason Street tends to support this. Status group communities in America tend to be based on differences in education rather than income. If the status group explanation is valid, then noise annoyance should correlate more strongly with education than with income. Bosman-Clark's study of Mason Street provided one such test. Multiple-partial regression techniques were used to test the relative effect of education and income, controlled for other factors including each other, on noise annoyance. The partial correlation for the relationship between education and annoyance was greater than the partial correlation between income and annoyance (Bosman-Clark 1975).
This finding lends support to the status group theory explanation of socioeco- nomic variations in noise annoyance. If this indeed is the theoretical "why," what is the practical significance of this "why"? Let us consider a hypothetical situation to illustrate its importance. Let us suppose we are considering two alternative highway corridors, one of which would go through a predominantly middle strata neighborhood, the other through a more blue collar area. We would expect noise annoyance to be greater for the middle strata area. Does this mean the actual social impact is greater? If we accept "degree of offense to status group norms" as the sole criterion for judging impact, then the impact can perhaps be considered greater.
However, let us further suppose that the actual noise will be greater in the blue collar area due to small or nonexistent front yards, thin walls, and lack of insulation and air conditioning, and that interior noise levels would reach an L- 10 level of 75-80 dBA (well above minimum standards). In the middle strata area with expansive front yards, thicker walls, and closed windows with air conditioning, let us suppose interior noise levels would be well below accepted standards. If the middle strata area still reports greater noise annoyance due to their status group conventions, which alternative would be the rational choice to minimize social impact? These theoretically guided perceptions can and should be used to balance the recurring political tendency to always choose the corridor through the lower strata areas, corridors that ironically are disproportionally used by members of the higher status group who "can't stand" noise.
This theoretical analysis has important implications for the University Avenue impact assessment. It will be recalled from the social profile analysis that the impact zone runs primarily through lower strata neighborhoods (Tables 1 and 3). Our status group convention thesis, supported by Bosman-Clark's data on a
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TABLE 7. Perception of Need for Widening by Location on Impact Zone Blocks: Responses to the Question "Do you think the proposed widening of University Avenue is necessary or don't you think it is needed?"
Location on Block
Front Side Back
Definitely needed 12.5% 25% 24%
Probably needed 25.0% 50% 20.8%
Probably not needed 20.8% 15% 4.2%
Definitely not needed 29.2% 0% 12.5%
Don't know 12.5% 10% 29.2%
Missing 0% 0% 4.2%
highly comparable case, suggests an explanation for the discrepancy between the high levels of noise, actual behavioral interference (Table 6) and the relatively moderate degree of opposition to the project both politically and as expressed in our social surveys. Not quite a majority of those living directly facing Uni- versity Avenue felt the project was not needed (Table 7), and just over a majority felt that the street should just be repaired but not widened or that neither should be done (Table 8).
It is striking that these were such small proportions given the high levels of the noise and the noise interference with daily activities in homes along the street. On both indicators, a substantial proportion of those surveyed either favored widening, had no opinion, or had so little interest in the issue that they failed to respond to the question. It may be that the condition of the street was
TABLE 8. Preference for Widening or Repairing by Location on Impact Zone Blocks
Front Side Back
Repaired and widened 20.8% 55.0% 33.3%
Just widened 50.0% 25.0% 6.7%
Neither 4.2% 0% 0%
Don't know 4.2% 10.0% 16.7%
Missing 20.8% 10% 33.3%
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so bad that many people saw a need for the widening despite some negative consequences for them. Even so, there was very little interest or support for suggestions to institute mitigating measures to reduce noise impacts to residents (at the city's expense) if the project was deemed necessary. Had these objective levels of behavioral interference occurred in a middle strata area, we suspect that levels of expressed social impacts and political opposition would have been much greater.
This discrepancy was evident also in the actual community political response. There were protest meetings, letters, and a few impassioned hearing statements. These tended to be sporadic, and had nothing of the intensity with which such battles are waged on middle strata turfs. Part of this is no doubt due to the well known lower level of participation of the lower strata in the political process in general. Nevertheless, the lack of strong status group conventions that define noise as socially evil may dampen the mobilization of group action, despite the fact that behavioral impacts are already high and will get worse.
A further sociological factor may have contributed to this dampening of op- position both in the survey and politically. We know the project runs through a community that is stable and tightly knit. We also know that the zone of extreme impact is quite narrow. Persons on the side and back of blocks within the defined impact zone had much lower rates of opposition, and indeed tended to strongly favor widening (Tables 7 and 8). It may be that, because of the strong community bonding, those within the severe impact zone were socially constrained from extensive opposition due to the lack of broader community backing and perhaps even by the opposition due to their position by the dominant community opinion that favored widening.
The picture that emerges is one of dampened expressions of protest and re- actions due to status group norms and dominant community feeling in a situation where actual noise impacts and behavioral discomfort is expected to be great.
TABLE 9. Resident's Expected Relocation Decision if Street Is Widened
Home Owners Renters
Sell and move I 1.4%
Not sell but rent 2.3%
Don't know 25% 34.4%
Continue renting 43.7%
Would move 21.9%
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Few persons expect to escape the situation through moving (Table 9), due prob- ably to limited economic options and close community ties. From the number of persons along Mason Street who now huddle in the back of their homes (Bosman-Clark 1975), we suspect that the actual social impacts on the lives of University Avenue residents will be greater than most of them publicly state. Their adaptive strategy in sum is "grin and bear it."
Perhaps it is asking too much for technically minded practical engineers and designers to seriously consider such sociological subtleties, yet, if sociology is to be truly useful in impact analysis (in more than a methodological sense) and if planning is to become truly advanced through the social impact analysis process, then such issues must be joined in the practical world of decision making.
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