The Nimby Reaction
Urban Crossroads #106



“Nimby” is an acronym for “not in my backyard.” It is used to describe negative reactions to planned new uses or building projects in one’s neighborhood. It is a pejorative term. Those engaging in it are referred to as “nimbies.”

Examples of uses or building projects that nimbies do not welcome in their neighborhoods include a major road or a rail line, a large residential or commercial development, a sports stadium, or a landfill. There is no shortage of functions we do not want to have close to where we live.

Although it is easy to criticize nimbies, we in fact all are guilty of nimbyism. There are so many urban functions that none of us want in our backyard. However, it is the wealthy and the influential who are usually successful in ensuring that these functions are placed away from where they live. They have the ability and resources to actively lobby decision makers to support their interests. In contrast, those who lack the necessary wealth and influence often are not able to make much of a difference. Most often, they end up having to live with urban uses they oppose.

The challenge therefore is to ensure that all city residents are treated fairly, making the nimby reaction unnecessary. This is not easy to achieve considering that many of the uses that nimbies oppose are essential to urban life. A few of those uses may be placed away from where we all live. Landfills, for examples easily may be placed in distant locations. They may still cause environmental concerns. Distant landfills also will require significant time, effort, and energy to access them. But at least nobody (or only very few people) would have to live close to them. Many other uses, however, simply have to be located in urban centers, in proximity to or within residential areas. Examples include urban transportation networks and stations, subsidized housing, or homeless shelters.

Understandably, most of us do not want disruptive changes taking place where we live. We all value having some peace and quiet as well as a sense of stability and continuity in our neighborhoods. We therefore will not welcome developments that would bring increased traffic, noise, or pollution. Nobody should be blamed for feeling that way.

Some things we can do without, or at least we can construct fewer of them and make them smaller. The more we recycle, the more we can limit the size and number of landfills. The more we rely on efficient public transportation systems, the less we need to build extensive road and highway networks that mercilessly tear through our neighborhoods.

Still, there are uses we cannot do without. How do we decide where these uses are placed? There is no easy answer. However, two factors can greatly help. The first is the competence and integrity of municipal authorities. When municipal structures adhere to high levels of competence and integrity, they will more likely make highly-informed and carefully-thought-out decisions that serve the public good, rather than serve a specific pressure group. City staff members therefore need to have the relevant technical competence that allows them to decide where a certain use should be placed.

Municipal staff members also need to be able to withstand various pressures from opposing directions. Such pressures could be from a few members of the local community making unrealistic demands, or from developers wanting a free reign to build what they want, where they want. Such pressures exist everywhere, in both developing and advanced societies. They include demands from influential individuals or groups who feel they are above the law, or from developers who fund the campaigns of city council members, and therefore expect their interests and concerns to be taken seriously.

The second factor that can help resolve where unwanted uses may be located is public participation. If a new urban project or use is to have a strong impact on an area, it is only natural that public consultations be held with the people of that area. At such consultations, these projects need to be presented and explained. In turn, the public should have the opportunity to extensively inquire and comment about them. Such consultations are not easy, and can be unpleasant. They often attract people with very specific, private, and often strange concerns, some of which may not even be related to zoning issues. It therefore would not be surprising at such meetings to hear a complaint on how a new construction may block the view from somebody’s kitchen window, or how a new street light disturbs their sleep at night. The American comedy series “Parks and Recreation,” which deals with the parks department at a city in the state of Indiana, hilariously captures such people and their idiosyncrasies.

These public consultations can become very contentious. Various stakeholders with differing opinions on where urban uses should be placed (or not placed) very often enter into highly-heated arguments. These arguments may be between developers and residents, or between residents themselves. And of course, they may be between municipal officials and stakeholders affected by a project. In spite of these difficulties, such a public participatory approach cannot and should not be avoided. Winston Churchill had made the famous remark that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Such stakeholder consultations are an example of the democratic process taking place at a fundamental, community-based level. These meetings make for a rough ride, but in the final result, they very well may bring the various participants together to agree on a common position. They often point out the need to compromise, and also to understand the concerns, needs, and interests of the other side.

Dealing with nimbyism is a tough challenge. We are all nimbies, and we all have the right to be so. Once we come to terms with this, and once we accept that we all have rights as well as responsibilities as urban citizens, addressing nimbyism becomes a little bit easier.

Mohammad al-Asad

July 01, 2010