The Politics of NIMBY

Samuel Staley's picture
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The following came through on a planning list serve, and I thought it raised several very provocative points that speak to the core of how we plan in the U.S.
"I heard, though I cannot remember the source, of a municipality that countered predictable neighborhood opposition to a higher density TOD proposal by broadening the review process to the whole community. I believe that the actual adjacent property owners were deemed to have a conflict of interest: i.e. their backyard versus overall better transit and housing opportunities for the entire town. Can anyone direct me to such rational planning examples?"

I haven't verified whether this characterization is correct (although answer was Perth, Australia), but it struck me that the perspective implicit in this observation is a bit odd.

I'm not a fan of NIMBY's. In fact, I believe that NIMBY's are one of the biggest impediments to housing and transportation innovation, including allowing more density and mixed use. I think one of the fundamental challenges to modern planning is distinguishing between legitimate concerns about development and simple, reactionary hostility to anything that might upset the status quo. I've written about a market-based approach in the Journal of Urban Planning and Development (December 2005 issue), but I won't go into the detail here.

Rather, I want to challenge implicit notion that someone who is impacted by a development proposal somehow has a "conflict of interest" in the debate over the proposed project. Moreover, the idea that somehow broadening the approval process to expand the influence of individuals and interest groups that will not shoulder the burden of a proposed development is a recipe for planning disaster.

I'm drawing primarily on my experience as a member and former chair of planning board. I saw NIMBY activity first hand. But, I also found that opposition in and of itself was not reactionary NIMBYism. Citizens raised critical issues and points that should have demanded our attention on the planning board, but would likely not have been discussed if they weren't part of the process. Key issues included concerns about the location and intensity of changing traffic patterns, storm water runoff, and drainage. Other issues were raised as well (e.g., effects on community character, market potential, impacts on public service levels). Some we could address and others we could not. And of course, some were simple and pure objections to change.

The task for the planning board is to distinguish between those concerns that are legitimate and tangible enough we can address and are within the scope of our planning board's authority. The role of the planning board chair and planning staff is to guide the members of the planning board and city council through this process to ensure that community benefits are maximized and external costs minimized. Expanding the planning process to include groups with no tangible stake in the consequences of a negative outcome dilutes this critical function of the planning process.

Moreover, I've found that NIMBYs also work on the city and regional level. Aggressive environmental activists bog down the planning process in many ways, including presenting "evidence" against development projects that is only vaguely connected to the real outcomes of the project. Non-local open-space advocates have also lobbied hard against development projects even when the design was infinitely better and more integrated into the urban fabric of a community than the overlay zoning, which was the developers default alternative.

On the whole, my experience has been that people (and businesses) directly effected by a proposed development raise the most important and substantive issues in evaluating a development proposal. They also bring the most intimate knowledge of the potential impacts. It's our job as a planning board to make the decision based on the impacts on neighbors and the community.

Of course, imbedded in the planner's comment above is the self-evident belief that high density, TOD developments are good for the community. They are not if they emerge in the wrong place at the wrong time and under the wrong circumstances. My first project as a graduate student involved rewriting a comprehensive plan for a small suburban community that was figuratively and literally ripped apart when a medium density low income housing development was dropped into it in the mid-1970s. The community went from nearly 80 percent homeowners (and stable) to majority renter and transient. The community's size increased by a third, the physical landscape was fundamentally altered, crime went up, property values plummeted. The community never recovered. In my view the ends (high density, TOD) do not justify the means (further politicizing an already highly politicized planning process).

In another future post, I'll lay out what I think are the building blocks for an effective process to distinguish between concerns we can address on the planning board level and those we cannot. But, for now, I'm interested in hearing the reactions from those that read this post.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Comments

Comments

My reaction

Sam, I think the best market-based "solution" to NIMBYism that I have heard is landpooling. As you point out, NIMBYs are 1) people who are resistant to change and 2) those protecting their specific economic interest. Good local officials should ignore #1 and landpooling, I think, does a good job of addressing #2. A landpool can result in people achieving their desired economic protection while still resulting in development that is appropriate for the community.

Environmentalists Versus NIMBYs

Since you asked for reactions, my immediate reaction is that you should distinguish between environmentalists and NIMBYs. You write:

Moreover, I’ve found that NIMBYs also work on the city and regional level. Aggressive environmental activists bog down the planning process in many ways, including presenting “evidence” against development projects that is only vaguely connected to the real outcomes of the project. Non-local open-space advocates have also lobbied hard against development projects even when the design was infinitely better and more integrated into the urban fabric of a community than the overlay zoning, which was the developers default alternative.

I don't know whether you are talking about environmentalists or NIMBYs in this quote. I suspect those non-local open space advocates are environmentalists and the "aggressive environmental activists" who lobby against proposals are NIMBYs and not really environmental activists at all, but I don't know.

The key difference is that:

Environmentalists are in favor of public transportation and smart growth. They oppose sprawl development on the peripheries. They support transit-oriented development and infill development to promote walking and transit use.

NIMBYs are against all development and do not question the transportation status quo. They oppose development because it increases traffic congestion and makes it harder to find a parking space - in other words, because it makes it harder for them to drive.

Eg, where I live in Berkeley, environmentalists support infill development on transit corridors but oppose freeway-oriented retail development. NIMBYs oppose all development. Environmentalists are currently working on supporting a Bus Rapid Transit Line, and NIMBYs oppose it because they think that removing a car lane would 1)cause spill-over traffic in their neighborhoods and 2)cause congestion that would make it harder for them to drive.

You probably disagree with both environmentalists and NIMBYs, but you need to distinguish between them and criticize them separately to deal with the issue coherently.

Charles Siegel
An Environmentalist Who Has Spent Lots Of Time Fighting Against NIMBYs

Gary Rose-Weber's definition of NIMBY

Gary Rose-Weber is a planning consultant who works in San Diego. I don't believe he is particularly well known, but he did give a lecture that I saw right before I was making the career switch to planning. He had a definition of NIMBY that I though particular good:

NIMBY - a local individual with a vested interest fully engaged with the political process

Like anyone else in planning I don't like NIMBYism, but I fully support everyone's right to be a pain in the butt if they are personally impacted. This is also why I fully accept that planning and building in California takes forever. While its very frustrating I think the outcome is better than if projects were rushed.

I think one of the best ways to deal with NIMBYism is to give people ample opportunity to express those opinions. Based on research I've seen give the real NIMBYs enough rope to hang themselves with, and the rest of the rest of the community backs away from the extreme position and starts to work with the city and the developers.

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