On Nimbyism

“Nimbyism” is a term often applied to unthinking, reactive resistance of vocal residents to nearby developments. Its utility, however, is not limited to the field of urbanism. Let’s begin by examining the roots of a nimbyist mentality. The term “nimbyism” comes from the abbreviation of “Not In My Back Yard,” a phrase intended to imply an indiscriminate opposition to changes in the nearby physical landscape. However, there is something more to be gleaned from this pejorative(1). There is indeed a sense of possession: the affected area belongs to the (supposedly) affected citizen as though it were his or her backyard.

Matthew J. Kiefer wrote a comprehensive essay, “The Social Functions of NIMBYism,” that contains the following colorful description of nimbyism in action in a hypothetical neighborhood meeting:

First, people complain that they did not get notice of the meeting – yet they are in attendance, so what are we to make of that? Others voice complaints that seem embarrassingly trivial to air in public in a voice quivering with outrage: the developer’s trucks are muddy or the project description misspells the name of their street. General complaints emerge about neighborhood-wide conditions that are somehow now the developer’s responsibility to address. These throat-clearing denunciations are a way to limber up for the main event, which is to dismantle the actual proposal and its proponent in any way possible.

The project-specific complaints follow familiar patterns too. The traffic in every neighborhood is, apparently, already intolerable, no matter what the transportation consultants say about “level of service.” The project will only worsen it, infringing upon residents’ inalienable right to uncongested streets.

The rest of Kiefer’s essay offers further insights, and I will come back to it later, but you should also read it for yourself. I can vouch for the accuracy of this hypothetical anecdote. Only a few months ago I myself attended a neighborhood meeting about a proposed new hotel on the site of an abandoned hospital. Attendees brought up the usual parking, height, and aesthetic complaints(2), as well as a few unusual ones. One concerned citizen even suggested that the proposed hotel’s function room might host bar mitzvahs, which might serve alcohol, which might unleash a plague of drunks on that corner of the neighborhood, only blocks from the elementary school that was the site of the meeting. Is there any point in adding that there is already a restaurant across the street from the school that serves alcohol? I came away from that meeting convinced that the more obstructionist members of the community would not be satisfied until the developer agreed to personally mow their lawns.

It is not impossible that the objections recounted both in the hypothetical community meeting and at various real-life ones I’ve attended are sincere. However, as the label(3) nimbyism would suggest, there is more to it than that. There is also more to it than, as is often suggested, a simple hostility towards change. As Kiefer points out,

it is important to recognize that NIMBYs are not just reflexively change-averse; average Americans will move twelve times in their lifetimes, and, according to the National Association of Homebuilders, Americans have been spending record amounts in home renovation projects in the recent housing boom. The environmental change that NIMBYists resist is change imposed by others. This crucial distinction underlies virtually all opposition to development.

This, I believe, explains to some extent why nimbyists(4) object so easily to local projects. But why do they feel they have any right to stop such projects? No structures will be built or torn down on their properties without their consent, no public dangers will be created, and their persons will not be harmed—otherwise they could have recourse to the police. Even their tactics suggest that, in the eyes of the law, their rights are not being infringed. To stop construction of their chosen target, they employ tools such as historic preservation and liquor licensing (or lack thereof) in pursuit of goals they were never intended for—goals that have nothing to do with architectural significance or alcohol—because the law provides them with no legitimate tools for their purposes(5).

To arrive at last at my contention, I believe these actions are founded on an assumed right, the right to remain undisturbed, that does not in fact exist. Nimbyism holds that it is unjust for anyone else’s actions to result in a worsening of your circumstances, regardless of any benefit to someone else. If someone could profit by constructing a building that obstructs your view, it does not matter that your view is not your property; it may not even be enough that, on balance, the new building might help others more than it hurts you. The harm to you must be outweighed by reparations from the developer, or you will not give your consent—a necessary prerequisite, you believe, for any project affecting you. If the developer wants to build his building, he must mow your lawn.

Do rights end at the property line, then? Is a “neighborhood” really just a number of individual land plots related by geography? Of course not. Citizens have some power over matters pertaining to their neighborhood, just as they have some power over matters pertaining to their city and their country. Since that power is collective in nature, they should exercise it collectively—through a government. Every body of people that decides its own laws can decide how specifically this power should best be exercised, but if, as I said, the laws do not allow any legitimate means for opposing a project, this is a good sign that the collectivity has decided not to accommodate the nimbyism in question. In practice—and, in fact, in its Oxford English Dictionary definition—nimbyism often objects to things merely (if not openly) on the basis of their proximity, and not on the basis of their merits; by implication it would have no objection to a similar project located elsewhere. This explains why it would be difficult to imagine a collectivity empowering nimbyism beyond a certain extent. Its objections are not made on universal grounds, and it is upon universal grounds that law rests.

I began this post by vouching for the utility of nimbyism as a concept outside its usual context of local development, and I do not intend to go back on my word. I believe I have now given a full account of nimbyism and the error behind it: mistaking the desire to remain undisturbed for a right. This explanation will serve as vital background to future posts on ethical and intellectual nimbyism.

Questions for commenters: If, as I said, the collectivity so often leaves nimbyism without legitimate tools to oppose target projects, how is it that these targets are so often brought down? Is pressuring elected officials legitimate, or illegitimate, according to this theory of government and legitimacy? Does this theory of government and legitimacy even make any sense?

(1) The word has been pejorative from its first coinage. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first use in the Christian Science Monitor in 1980: “A secure landfill anywhere near them is anathema to most Americans today. It’s an attitude referred to in the trade as NIMBY—‘not in my backyard’.”

(2) Relatedly, my father always says that “McMansion” is just another word for a big house you don’t like.

(3) I originally wanted to use “moniker” in place of “label” here, but decided against it. However, note the fascinating etymology of “moniker.” It comes from hobo slang!

(4) I hesitate to use the noun “nimbyist” and prefer to stick to the abstract “nimbyism.” I ask the reader to bear in mind that by “nimbyist” I mean only someone who happens at the moment to be enacting “nimbyism,” and not a possessor of any particular personality trait.

(5) Another common tool of nimbyism is zoning, which is a complicated subject. For the moment, suffice it to say that the proper purpose of zoning is not to oppose (or support) a specific project, but to set the general requirements for the use of a piece of land. The only reason for a change in zoning should be a reevaluation of the best use of that land, as a component in the wider neighborhood and city. Zoning ordinances belong to the domain of the general, zoning variances to that of the particular.

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6 Responses to “On Nimbyism”

  1. Two comments: I love the bar mitzvah story, not only because the of the bar across the street, but also because bar mitzvahs in modern America are always on Saturday WHEN THERE IS NO SCHOOL. And bar mitzvah parties are usually on Saturday nights, WHEN THERE REALLY IS NO SCHOOL.

    I think the key to nimbyism is that “[i]ts objections are not made on universal grounds,” which is where not only law, but morality rests. They know that people have to live somewhere, that apartment buildings have to be built somewhere, that there are good reasons for our society to build them near public transportation, etc. But they just don’t want the new dwellings to crowd their streets or take up some of their sunlight or for the new residents to use up their parking spaces. And, while the law usually doesn’t give explicit recognition to NIMBYism, it frequently does give opponents of a project all sorts of procedural mechanisms (including lawsuits) to delay the project or increase its expense, thereby, on occasion, killing it.

    Finally, the law does recognize NIMBYism in one important respect: it is called private property. When one owns property, one can, within broad limits, simply forbid others to enter or to do anything on the property that one doesn’t want — whether the public good would be improved or worsened by what the visitors/intruders want to do. But NIMBYism as generally practiced involves attempting to extend a’s property rights, in this sense, to property owned by b.

  2. It’s an unfortunate but well-documented fact that governments often do or permit things contrary to the will of the collectivity. Many of the tools employed in the service of nimbyism, like the lawsuits you mentioned, were never meant to be used for obstructionist purposes. Environmental, parking, and traffic studies have functions made clear by their names, but they are often appropriated as delaying tactics.

    Finally, I’d like to point out that some of your language (“apartment buildings have to be built somewhere”) implicitly grants nimbyist claims about the burdens of development. While I’m sure there are instances of higher residential or commercial density inconveniencing neighbors, development can often provide blessings undreamed of by local grumblers.

  3. You’re right about apartment buildings. One point here is that NIMBYist views don’t have to be rational. And that shows that you are also right that NIMBYist views involve not just a failure to universalize; they also involve a frequently-but-not-always-irrational fear of change and of the unknown. Sometimes change does harm those living nearby, even if the change is for the overall social good. NIMBYists can oppose both kinds of change.

  4. Very interesting post.

    A few observations:

    1. You have not specifically discussed the class and race aspects of nimbyism. But I suspect that implicit in the concept is that the nimbyists — sorry, practitioners of nimbyism — are affluent, usually white people.

    One strand of the environmental movement is called “environmental justice.” The idea is that people with little political clout, including minorities and the poor, often get shafted when it comes to pollution. A coal-fired power plant, for example, may be built in a poor neighborhood with a large population of African-Americans or Hispanics, and dump mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants into the air breathed by the pelople nearby. By the time those pollutants reach more affuent areas, they have been diluted to less harmful levels.

    Part of the explanation is undoubtedly simply market forces: rational profit-maximizing power plants buy land where it’s cheap. But perhaps another part of the explanation is that there is not enough nimbyism practiced by the residents of the low-income neighborhood. The absence of effective local resistance would thus make the effective price of building a polluting facility in a poor neighborhood even lower, relative to the price of building in a richer area.

    Put another way, the expertise that affluent communities use in applying the techniques of nimbyism may be a significant tool in maintaining class boundaries.

    2. By labeling nimbyism as “unthinking, reactive resistance” to change, you may have assumed away, with a clever definition, the tough problem of distinguishing between local protest movements that provide real societal benefits and those motivated purely by irrationality or selfishness. Surely there are some local protest movements that we can all applaud. When I was a kid, for example, I was a small part of a movement that prevented the destruction of a beautiful wooded area bordering the Potomac (which including a spectacular waterfall a hundred feet from the Potomac) by a housing development. The county eventually bought the land and it is now a very popular public park — one of the few such public places in the area. I don’t think this protest movement was nimbyism, but if it was, what the hell.

    So my question: is there empirical research looking at some representative sample of local protest movements? Without that, I find it hard to know to what extent the idea of nimbyism is rhetoric, rather than an accurate description of the major trend.

    3. On your good point about the benefits to the (whiny) local residents from development, you might want to take a look (if you haven’t already) at the writings of Henry George, who advocated a “single tax” — solely on the appreciation in property values that is caused by the bigger-than-any-individual-actor forces of urbanism. If I recall correctly, he believed that if we taxed property appreciation, we wouldn’t need to tax anything else.

  5. Viking,
    You’re absolutely right about the class aspect of nimbyism. Among other things, it is a hobby that requires leisure time.

    As for local protest movements that bring good results, of course those exist. The freeway revolts of the ’60s and ’70s, where successful, saved large parts of American and Canadian cities from devastation. In Washington, DC, a model case of successful freeway revolts, the money from the canceled Inner Beltway and other projects was redirected to build the Metro, an outcome that must be applauded in retrospect. Among the freeway protesters there were those who celebrated the redirection of the funds towards Metro and those who deplored the construction of a subway system as well, showing that some had been protesting out of good sense and some out of nimbyism. In other words, it can be the motivation for an action that makes it nimbyist or not. It sounds like your protest movement, for you at least, was not nimbyist.

    Which now-popular park did you help save? I’ll take a look at Henry George when I get a chance.

  6. […] Milton’s quote “what oft was said but ne’er so well expressed”, The Thugout Blog revisits the issue and invites further comment from you about Nimbyism in land use politics. […]

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