The Good, the Bad, and NIMBYism pt. 3

Happy belated holidays from indYIMBY! After a couple frenzied weeks, we are returning to post-holiday programming with the 3rd and final installment in our The Good, the Bad, and NIMBYism series.

The first two installments of this series dealt with benevolent and malevolent forms of developments and asserted that, because design is integral to a neighborhood, steps must be taken to ensure community projects are beneficial to tourists, inter-city visitors, and residents alike. So what about NIMBYism? What is it and what can residents and urbanists alike do to combat its most malicious forms?

Given a renaissance of urban demand throughout the United States, masses of empty-nesters and millennials have flipped suburban preferences for urban ones, returning profit-seeking developers and their attention back to inter-city neighborhoods. However, developers must make adjustments. Building in cities hugely differs from constructing in low-density, more laissez-faire municipalities eager to increase their tax bases. To finally break ground and construct, developers confront multitudes of ordinances, preservation committees, and constraints on square footage and parking. However, beyond the disjointed, bureaucratic mess an American planning process can be, a dark menace lurks for developers -the dreaded NIMBY.

What is a NIMBY?

According to Google, “a NIMBY (acronym for the phrase “Not In My Back Yard”) is a characterization of opposition by residents to a proposal for a new development because it is close to them, often because such residents believe that the developments are needed in society but should be further away.”

Now, there  is some merit for this general definition, allotting plenty of gray-space. “New development” could be any range of things, from a landfill to a 27-story tower to a transit line. “Further away” entails not in my community, but then where? And how would that location affect the rest of “society”, or, the living creature that is a city?  Given this dissection, we establish that there can be both “positive” and “negative” (“justified” and “unjustified”) NIMBYism

We, as urbanists, cannot conflate NIMBYism as solely a black-and-white ideology despite its connotation with ignorant agendas. Granted, there are instances where a development will definitely be a bad thing for everyone and these fit into the “justified” category -however, most NIMBYism arises from a resistance to change (“unjustified”), where concerns of a few may outweigh what may truly be best for all. A community is a cohesive group of hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens that each have their own self-interests and agendas in mind. The goal here is to establish a harmony between these interests. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau eloquently states in The Social Contract,

“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.” 

Justified NIMBYism

Opposition to a project due to its proximity is a valid rationale only if well-informed locals have weighed the impact and objectively argue the project will negatively affect both them and their community. 

The general will takes common interest into account and what is good for all is good for one. To address community concerns in the public arena, arguments should be educated and well thought-out, acknowledging both pros and cons of a potential development. If after this process, the cons outweigh pros and indicate a proposal is malevolent for a community, then avenues to relocate it can be explored. This is the only possible way to establish commonality and ensure the best for all.

I would most definitely loathe a landfill three houses down even though it is an inevitable necessity of my metropolitan area. There must be somewhere else the landfill can go. And assuredly, there is. This sort of NIMBYism is not construed as wrong, it simply makes sense. I do not want my kids playing in trash. I do not want to smell trash. Easy. My rationale is justified because it does not make sense to have a dump (locally unwanted land use or “lulu”) in a residential area.

Perhaps the greatest example of productive NIMBYism is the story of Jane Jacobs and her successful campaign challenging plans to construct a freeway through Lower Manhattan. (Author’s note: This particular instance is one of the most famous of the Highway revolts, a specific form of NIMBYism during the 60’s and 70’s that proved to be benevolent for the communities they affected.)

The Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX) was a radical plan for a highway from the Holland Tunnel on the Hudson River to the Williamsburg Bridge on the east side of Manhattan. It would proceed through the city as an elevated ten-lane road through Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Little Italy. Proposed by Robert Moses (city planner would be an understatement) in the 1940’s, by 1961, his LOMEX plan would use federal urban renewal funds  to destroy a plethora of historic structures, displacing over 1,900 residents.

Community activist and renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs organized rallies, staged demonstrations, and attended hearings to block the project at every expense – correctly claiming replacing whole expanses of neighborhoods with a concrete freeway would act as a physical barrier to pedestrian activity and decimate vibrancy of streets. (She’s right: walk eastward on Michigan, Vermont, St. Clair or New York under I-65/I-70, or look at the history of Fountain Square before it was cut in two)

Eventually, with help from the press and political figures, Jacobs won her fight and the neighborhoods LOMEX would have destroyed are thankfully still intact. But this was pure, unadulterated NIMBYism.

However, it was justified.

Jacobs used insight and observations to conclude this project would have a negative impact on quality of life. Reflecting on at the world-famous neighborhoods this freeway would have destroyed proves her right. This is justified NIMBYism because educated arguments in a public forum were used to ensure her community would take the course of action most suitable for its future. Even though the Jane Jacobs case is heavily magnified under the light of NYC, NIMBYism does not have to be on the large-scale of hers to remain justified.

Researched NIMBYism is healthy, and frankly, makes sense. There will always be those in the community who don’t see things eye to eye, but given an educated public forum where pros and cons can be discussed openly, the community can come to a common conclusion ensuring that what happens in their neighborhood is what is for the best.

But let’s take a look at the gray-space where things get a bit convoluted.

Unjustified NIMBYism

“Those resistant to change are destined to perish.”

NIMBYism for the sake of stopping developments whatsoever, in spite of the benefits a proposal may bring, is ignorant and gives NIMBYists their negative connotation. Opinions determined only to mitigate change are not justified, and often give neighborhoods a bad name while diminishing prospect of a greater neighborhood for everyone. Forward-thinking and educated citizens understand that growth is a beast that cannot be stopped, therefore, in the best interest of their community, municipalities must turn growth into its most benevolent form. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser states poignantly,

“Ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, should have more say over what happens to them, but community control must unfortunately be limited, because local communities often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences of banning building…many of the world’s cities, both new and old, have arrayed rules that prevent new construction at higher densities. Sometimes these rules have a good justification, such as preserving truly important works of architecture. However, sometimes these rules are mindless NIMBYism or a misguided attempt at stopping urban growth. In all cases, construction restrictions tie cities to their past and limit the possibilities for the future. If cities can’t build up, then they will build out.”

If anything, NIMBYism is derived from a deep-seeded desire to protect the integrity of a neighborhood someone has invested in, their “home”. However, it is also, due to evolutionary instincts, a rudimentary facet of human resistance to change. Most humans yearn to have a say on what goes on in their stomping grounds.

Uninformed citizens do not necessarily understand what is best for their community, and instead think of what is best for them, with little thought given to how future developments affect the inter-connected pieces of every member of a city. As Mindy Fullilove argues in Root Shock, her expose on the destruction of inter-city neighborhoods,

“The principle is simple: we -that is to say, all people- live in an emotional ecosystem that attaches us to the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as beings caught in a single, universal net of consciousness anchored in small niches we call neighborhoods or hamlets or villages.” 

Can we ever become something other than an extension of evolutionary instinct?

Aligning with the best interests of the community is paramount, but at the end of the day, what everyone wants is to have a better place to live. Unjustified NIMBYism overlooks educated processes to determine if a project is beneficial, simply becoming a sad by-product of humanity’s resistance to change

Simply arguing against something because it doesn’t seem like a good idea without any sort of facts or research makes your argument look ignorant and gives NIMBYism a bad name.

(*Author’s note: A previous version of this article used inappropriate tone and for that, we apologize. All members of the community, old, young, right, left have to work together and try to understand each other’s concerns if anything is to be accomplished.)

The forest fertilizes itself by burning down

We all want to live. But for a living entity such as a city, change is necessary, renewal is inevitable and the city needs food. Allowing things to remain the way they are only incites decline and disinterest. However, this comes with the knowledge that not every new change will be for the benefit.

This being said, it is impossible to stop NIMBYism -there will always be those who will be resistant to change. But we cannot overlook its benevolent forms and we must fights its malevolent iterations, the goal being a better city with a brighter future for all involved.

We cannot allow a few self-interested citizens to cause detriment. It is our job as urbanists to turn public participation in all its forms into a tool for smart, benevolent growth that stimulates and benefits all members of our communities.