NIMBY Zoning And the Tragedy Of The Commons

Michael Lewyn's picture
Decades ago, ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote about the "tragedy of the commons"- when an action that is rational for one person becomes irrational when widely practiced. 

For example, suppose that there are a few dozen cattle ranchers near a pasture open to all.  It makes sense for each rancher to let as many cattle graze as possible on the pasture, so that the ranchers can feed their cattle without buying additional land.  But if every rancher lets as many cattle as possible graze, sooner or later the land will be overgrazed and the cattle may starve.

Today's NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard")-based system of land use regulation has a similar illogic.   Typically, an urban landowner who wishes to build additional housing units will need to request a rezoning, because existing zoning often bars densities higher than the status quo.   Because no one other than the landowner and its neighbors care about the rezoning, municipal politicians often approve a rezoning only if neighbors do not object.

For each individual neighborhood, it may make sense to oppose such rezonings.  New housing may lead to additional traffic, and may even lead to decreasing real estate values as the housing supply expands.   

But what happens if every single neighborhood keeps out new housing?  Housing prices may explode, because a reduced supply of any item is likely to raise the price of that item.  San Francisco-size housing prices may be good for the NIMBYs, but are not so good for the region's overall quality of life.

And if there are not enough housing units in existing neighborhoods to meet demand, developers will build housing in depopulated (usually rural) areas where there are few neighbors to object.   Because public transit usually does not serve the newest suburbs, the residents of these new homes will drive long distances to work, thus increasing vehicle miles traveled, which increases traffic congestion and air pollution for everyone (as well as the unforeseeable consequences of increased greenhouse gas emissions). 

And if jobs move to serve the new suburbs' residents, eventually residents of existing urban and suburban neighborhoods will be forced to drive to those jobs to avoid unemployment, suffering from additional transportation costs and perhaps even from the traffic congestion they sought to avoid when they sought to exclude urban housing.

So even though NIMBY exclusion is good for its practitioners in the short run, we all suffer in the long run, making NIMBYism a classic example of the "tragedy of the commons." 

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



A proposal

Michael L. is spot-on, as always.

Since he focused on California, and since an eleventh-hour attempt to reform CEQA (California's far-reaching environmental law, frequently used by NIMBYs, via lawsuits, to stop projects of all kinds, including urban infill projects of the sort that many of us planners say that we want) has just failed, here's a proposal:

Pass state legislation that completely and totally removes any CEQA obligations from any project that lies within a Priority Development Area (PDA). PDAs are small areas designated by California MPOs as the best places within metropolitan regions to focus infill development pursuant to statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets, because of their proximity to jobs, plentiful transit, central locations, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, leave CEQA completely unaltered everywhere else.

The result? A large, and potentially massive, shift towards infill development in the most Smart Growth-friendly locations.

Whether we pursue this solution or something else, whether in California or elsewhere, the answer to the dilemma that Michael poses has to be some sort of mechanism from above the level of local governments that at least somewhat counteracts the power of NIMBYs. Otherwise, as Michael points out, they win -- again and again, with the all-too-familiar results that are plain for us all to see.

Jake Wegmann

Tweaking the Proposal

This is basically an excellent proposal, but I think it needs a bit of tweaking.

What if Caltrans wants to build a freeway or Exxon wants to build a refinery in a Priority Development Zone? There should obviously be an EIR for these uses.

The proposal is really intended just for uses that could be part of a walkable neighborhood, and so it should be limited: housing, offices, and shopping in a Priority Development Zone should not require an EIR.

But what if someone wants to develop a shopping center surrounded with an ocean of parking, or housing with the parking lots between the homes and the sidewalk?

As far as I can see, the only way to prevent this sort of problem is to have form-based codes rather than conventional zoning.

So I would say the proposal should be: Cities can eliminate the need for an EIR in Priority Development Zones by adopting form-based codes for those zones that create walkable neighborhoods.

Your thoughts?

Charles Siegel

good idea, but

CEQA is abused, but NIMBYs can be abusive. What I really mean is if they can't lean on CEQA, won't they lean on something else? What about CA giving the MPOs land use approval for developments located inside PDAs? How about altering the public hearing rule? Why give citizens input on specific projects anyway, why not not just plans? Just some thoughts.

isn't it the opposite?

I really don't see this as a tragedy of the commons. I feel that free people can object to what they don't want in their backyard. This argument is not new. Pluralism has always been inconvinient but the fact still remains: We cannot dictate what is best for an individual because it's arrogant and that kind of thinking kills. So just put up with the NIMBYs just as much as we have to put up with every other interest group.

This is very circular logic.

This is very circular logic. You say "we cannot dictate what is best for an individual" and use this as the basis for denying a property owner development rights that would meet market demand, based on what their neighbors (and often not direct neighbors) think.

In my own neighborhood, yards 1/2 to 1 mile away from a proposed project are sprouting signs opposing the development of apartments in a Main Street center along a transit line, despite these apartments being consistent with 4 years of comprehensive planning meant to meet the housing demand of our city in a sustainable way.

To allow these "neighbors" to dictate what the property owners can and cannot do seems to be in direct opposition to your statement that we cannot dictate what an individual does.


Highlights the need for real growth management frameworks

This is why statewide land use regulations such as Oregon's and Washington's are so important: they require that jurisdictions provide sufficient land for 20 years of growth, thus negating the no-growth and NIMBY arguments favored by (among others) the "left" and "right" respectively.

Jurisdictions (be they city, metro or county) then have to decide HOW TO accommodate needed growth, not whether to accommodate it at all (the no-growth paradigm) or allowing piecemeal decisions to be made based on NIMBY arguments, with no overall (implementable) plan to address a community's needs for housing, employment and infrastructure (the anti-planning or neighborhood activist paradigm).


the american mindset will always be our planning waterloo

hey the parable re the common pastures for ranchers and how it came to ruin from overuse is a classic analogy of the american political mindset that essentially says--"ive got mine jack--now piss off and find yours"---

re think the pasture analogy and this time put said grassy plot in the hands of a controlling agent (govt for lack of a better word)--now charge the "controller" with ensuring intelligent use of the space by all that would use it--thus ensuring it's long term viability.

great solution as long as it's not in the USA with it's appalling blind spot about who should be directing growth in this country--the controller or the ranchers---forget it america--you've got a fundamentally flawed system that will keep grinding out puke for ever.

Housing affordability, trip to work times - the reality

Michael; a couple of things to consider here. I hope I am not too late to this thread to get noticed - you are always a pleasure to discuss these issues with.

NIMBY zoning actually exists in plenty of cities with affordable housing; i.e. median multiples of around 3. So the NIMBY zoning does not automatically result in unaffordability.

There are plenty of unaffordable cities around the world that have HIGH density. LA and San Fran are the USA's most unaffordable cities and the highest density. The UK, Australia, and New Zealand, are all unaffordable in ALL their cities (median multiples of around 6 and higher). The UK's cities are among the highest density in the developed world. The fact that their cities also have median multiples of 6 and higher, means that the British are paying twice as much a proportion of their income for housing that is actually many times smaller, than people do in the affordable cities in the USA. The problem is similar, only not quite as bad as the UK, in California, Australia, and NZ.

Yes, NIMBY large lot restrictions do worsen the situation IF there is a problem with "supply" of land, period. But the absence of NIMBY restrictions do not restore affordability if the "supply" of land is constrained by regulations. Nor does the presence of NIMBY restrictions result in an affordability problem if there are no restrictions on the "supply" of land.

Glaeser, Ward and Schuetz (2006) find that every quarter acre of additional lot size mandated, is responsible for 4% higher "housing" costs. So lot sizes obviously cannot explain why median multiples might be 100% too high, and more.

The other thing to consider, is the data on trip-to-work times in cities, in the USA and in other countries. What data, where, shows cities with low density, low land costs, and highly dispersed employment, to have worse outcomes for trip-to-work times? The reverse is true in all the data I know of. Peter Gordon et al are being more and more proved right, not wrong, the longer time goes on.

Simplified Argument

Wodehouse -

We can all agree how supply and demand relate, and that therefore increasing land supply for housing will result in a lower median housing price - that is for single family detached residences. If that was the answer then hooray! Why do we need any planners, we should all just become 'land releasers', razing farmland for development with bulldozers.

Fortunately, we can also all agree that planning is very complex, and the price of a single family detached dwelling doesn't necessarily indicate the health of a society. Although, as evident through the fact that you post in Planetizen, you probably already know this already, I question why you seek to simplify planning to a single indicator? What about conservation, equality, climate change and community? What about the efficiency of the urban form? I can guarantee you that an analysis of the externalised costs of urban sprawl will illustrate a much different picture regarding cost of living for those residents in exurbs and beyond.

Brian Labadie
Senior Strategic Planner
Moonee Valley City Council

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