Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.
What Is a NIMBY?
One of the most politically charged and controversial terms in planning, the acronym NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard.
The acronym NIMBY (short for "Not In My Backyard") is a pejorative term used to describe people and organizations opposed to development. Use of the term implies a negative characterization, and many development opponents consider the term to be offensively reductive.
With the controversies and tacit implications of the term in mind, this article will attempt to provide a balanced account of the various definitions for the term and a conceptual framework to identify the connotations for the term when, and wherever, it is encountered.
A Word of Caution
As mentioned above, NIMBY is often used to negatively describe specific individuals, an ad hominem attack. Some consider the term a slur—that reason alone could be reason enough for extreme caution when using the term—and the use of NIMBY overtly declares an "us vs. them" dynamic that can be both divisive and destructive to productive debate. Those wishing to avoid taking a side on any given development debate should avoid the use of the term entirely.
A Slippery, Inherently Political Term
Although the specifics of development controversies vary widely, in recent years, NIMBY has come to be used most frequently as a shorthand for individuals and organizations opposed to multi-family housing, development density, public transit facilities, and bike infrastructure—in other words, the urban typologies largely absent during the car-centric planning era that has dominated the United States since the mass adoption of the automobile.
Development opponents, however, have succeeded in preventing projects that even the most devoutly pro-development urbanist would likely oppose—such as trash incinerators, freeways, airports, and other polluting or dangerous uses. U.S. history is full of examples of such noxious uses being located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. If NIMBY is used as a blanket term for all development opposition, the term runs the risk of lumping together individuals or organizations opposed to market-rate housing developments in communities of color, out of communitarian concerns about gentrification and displacement, with wealthy homeowners trying to block an apartment building or affordable housing developments, out of (potentially discriminatory) self-interested concerns about property values and public safety.
The historic preservation movement is frequently involved in anti-development politics—i.e., opposing new development that would require the demolition or displacement of existing historic and cultural resources—thus providing another example of the varied interests of development opposition politics. Development opponents will also cite a lack of infrastructure or parking as reasons to oppose development. The use of the term NIMBY places all of these causes into the same box.
Signs of political bias even crop up in the definitions for NIMBY produced by a simple Google search. Some definitions, for example, only mention the environmental concerns of development like freeways and trash incinerators while ignoring the long tradition of exclusionary zoning, redlining, and racial covenants devised specifically to consolidate the economic opportunities of the real estate market among white individuals and communities.
As has been argued in other places, such as Owen Pickford for The Urbanist and Austin Maitland for Strong Towns, a new term might be necessary to distinguish the development politics of wealthy, often white, property owners, with obvious financial incentives and cultural biases driving their development opposition to change, from the communitarian concerns and racial justice causes of low-income communities and communities of color.
Some of the caution and attempted balance of this article might indicate some sympathy for those who have been described as NIMBY, but it's important to note that many development opponents are neither oppressed nor neglected. The legal and financial systems of the United States almost entirely favor development opposition in the numerous forms of local control built into the legal codes and systems of government in the United States. Moreover, some individuals and groups take advantage of local control for their personal benefit. In California, for example, a law known as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has been used by individuals to hold development proposals for ransom and has even been used to force the University of California to slash the size of its incoming class.
The term NIMBY didn't materialize by accident, either. While the term first appeared in the late 1970s, credit for popularizing the term is usually given to the British politician Nicholas Ridley, who opposed a low-income housing development while serving as Secretary of State for the Environment for the United Kingdom in the 1980s.
Also, not every development opponent objects to being described as a NIMBY. Susan Kirsch, the founder of a development opposition organization known as Livable California, is quoted in a CityLab article from July 2019 saying. "It’s about people being stewards of what they love and care about....It’s care-giving, not excluding care for others." The public testimonies of many development opponents will also frequently include the unironic use of the words "not in my backyard," such as in this example from the opposition to a low-income housing project proposed in the farming community of Hanford in Central California.
In recent years, numerous states and municipalities have legislated their way to zoning reforms that loosen the bounds of local control, usually by allowing new forms of residential density or mixed-use development in areas previously reserved for single-family zoning. The proponents of the new wave of laws that support new housing development call themselves YIMBYs, an acronym standing for Yes In My Backyard, and these zoning reforms directly counteract the desired outcomes of development opponents typically described as NIMBYs. In response to these reforms, development opponents have found new and creative ways to oppose the new laws and will likely continue to do so, even if they have to rewrite the laws entirely.