NIMBY or genuine concern?

At the outset, a disclaimer: Land use and urban planning are incredibly complex topics that cannot be covered in a single book, let alone a single post. These issues are deeply interrelated and tangled up with each other and I will be making some simplifications or overly broad statements here for the sake of sticking to the thrust of this particular post. Please rest assured that I am aware of these larger issues (and have in fact written about them), but that today, for this moment in time, we are talking about the specific issue of untangling simple NIMBYism from actual genuine concerns about land and social policy — and I’m not even really going to solve that question in a single post. Thanks.

Offshore drilling is a perennial subject of discussion here (and of numerous bumperstickers to declare for and against, with ‘drill here, drill now, pay less’ being one of my current favourites). The argument rages back and forth with clockwork regularity, because the fact is that there probably is oil off our coastline. There’s also an extremely productive and rare marine ecosystem. There’s also a raging tourist industry. These things are in a state of pretty complicated conflict.

Pro-drilling advocates argue that we should work on independence from foreign oil, for a variety of political and economic reasons. Volatile pricing that sometimes actively penalises the US is one issue, for example, as is the concern of funding terrorist organisations that are growing more and more savvy about funding sources, and realising that capturing oil sources is a great way to do it. Controlling prices more effectively is another issue, as is, quite simply, ensuring that there is a ready supply of oil in the US when and where we need it. There are plenty of refineries along the California coast because they’re positioned to be near ports, we don’t need incredibly lengthy pipelines to transport oil, and so on, and nearby oil supplies mean that we can better control price fluctuations.

Opponents argue that drilling in an ecologically sensitive area is not a good idea, pointing out that the baseline level leaks present along oil deposits in general will be exacerbated even without the risk of significant well ruptures or spills, both of which we’ve seen in recent years. Disturbing the seafloor could seriously disrupt fish populations we rely on economically and contribute to a decline in marine diversity, which could have unintended consequences. Also, oil derricks and rigs are ugly, and increased ship and helicopter traffic is a concern, as is on-shore housing for workers — people who live here don’t want to see rigs, and they could create a negative impact on the tourist industry as well.

These groups work in a state of tension betwixt each other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m an opponent of drilling for a variety of reasons, including impact on the local ecology, larger concerns about the environment impacts of petroleum products, and a desire to push for alternative energy sources. That said, I drive a gas-burning (though hybrid) vehicle, and I rely on electricity which likely comes at least in part from coal plants, though I would support the installation of offshore wind and wave farms, though both have been criticised for being ugly.

I also, frankly, don’t want to look at drilling apparatus or deal with the influx of newcomers related to the industry. That’s a purely selfish issue, and one that shouldn’t really have a bearing on my position, but it definitely does, and while I might not bring it up in discussions about my opposition, it’s clearly fueling my desire to come up with reasons to oppose drilling. Were I in favour, I might be indifferent (or actively supportive of things like new income from additional residents and visitors). I really can’t be arsed to care about the tourism industry, which I actively loathe, but I definitely care about the beautiful place where I love and I take an active role in environmental and urban planning alike because I want to keep it that way.

This argument back and forth illustrates a larger social issue in the US right now: Differentiating between NIMBYs and people with genuine concerns about proposed developments and policies. It’s an especially big problem in urban areas, where NIMBYism is severely stalling out development…but in some cases, there are actually valid concerns that need to be addressed before projects move forward. Setting aside the huge issue of gentrification and associated problems like rising cost of living and related problems, what happens, for example, when a developer proposes a multistory luxury building near the waterfront? Clearly it’s designed for wealthy members of society only, and it’s also calculated to get excellent views, which, in the process, will disrupt the views enjoyed by existing residents, including low-income and working class people who happened to move to the right place at the right time.

Are there legitimate environmental issues? Quite probably — in San Francisco, for example, the areas near the Bay are primarily infill, and that could make the building unsafe. Building there would also make future marsh reclamation challenging. Sea level rise could create additional problems. Adding a building might contribute to wind tunnel effects and other problems. Obviously there’s a social issue — such a building would further drive up costs of living, possibly create situations where apartments sit empty because no one can afford them while pressure on existing housing stock remains unrelieved, and so forth. And there’s a purely aesthetic one — some people don’t want large buildings blocking their view, which is understandable.

At what point, and how, do you balance these issues? What if it’s a low-income housing development, which knocks out the social element but will trigger more aesthetic complaints about having low-income people in the area? (Notably, San Francisco has inclusionary zoning laws, but many developers accept fines to keep low-income people out of their developments and construct low-income housing elsewhere because they don’t want property values to drop, knowing that wealthy people don’t want to live in a building or complex with poor people.) What happens when these complaints are split between wealthy and poor alike who are upset about a giant building suddenly disrupting their community? What if the building is offset or built with care to address environmental issues and potential flooding?

These are all really difficult things to balance, and it’s really difficult to draw a line, at times, between NIMBYs and people with legitimate issues to air, especially in fraught landscapes where everyone has a dog in the fight, and that dog is sometimes quite hostile. But we need to be able to find a way to make this calculation if we’re going to make urban planning decisions both honestly and appropriately.

Image: Gentrification, Matthias Ripp, Flickr