The NIMBY is a familiar figure in many liberal urban and suburban communities in the United States — you can probably envision the type. The people who insist that the status quo must be maintained, development-wise, in order to maintain the ‘character’ or ‘unique characteristics’ of a community, warning that sinister forces will move in if anyone changes so much as the paint colour on the post office. NIMBYs are at city council and planning commission meetings, they’re circulating petitions and aggressively pursuing their Mayberry agenda, and people sometimes mock them, but they’re actually pretty sinister.
Many NIMBYs are straight up anti-development: I got mine, I don’t really care if you get yours. Others advocate for that they call ‘smart growth,’ which is actually a very complicated and sneaky euphemism. Most are white and middle class. Most are homeowners. These are all important traits to consider when looking at their stance on development.
Things that NIMBYs hate include: Dense development, increases to height limits on buildings, the construction of shopping centres and malls. Oddly enough, many of these things go hand in hand with trying to make a community more affordable and more accessible. If you build densely, more people can move in, and rents drop as more available units become available. That’s good news for people who are making very low wages, including those who are commuting for hours to get to work because they can’t bear the cost of living in the cities where they’re employed, like the janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers of the world.
Raising height limits similarly helps people build densely. This kind of construction doesn’t just open the door to more affordable housing. It also promotes environmental welfare, because building up is better than building up. When you’re constructing high rises, that means that you’re not building out a bunch of tract housing across currently empty land. You’re not destroying wetlands and paving over farmland. You’re taking advantage of an existing footprint and you’re using it more efficiently, which is a good thing. Bringing more people into an urban core also means that you’re cutting down on the environmental and social costs of commuting, passing direct benefits on to everyone.
Dense housing means you can live close to work and school, which gives you more time for being a person, instead of a worker drone. It means that you can spend time with your children, and volunteer with community organisations. It means that you can get to know your neighbours, hold events with them, build friendships. Dense urban planning builds communities, and makes them stronger. It allows people to build solidarity and it creates more opportunities: Youth can afford to go to better schools. Families can go to those shopping centers and buy groceries and other supplies. People have access to cultural events, to concerts and galleries and theatre and more. Dense construction changes the landscape, in really positive ways.
So why are people so terrified and put off by it? For the simple reason that it means poor people and people of colour (and those who overlap these categories) will move in. NIMBYs can paint things however they want and complain about views and skylines and ugly buildings, but what they’re really angry about is the thought that architecture and development can provide equal opportunities. When NIMBYs resist ADA requirements and modifications, they are saying they don’t want disabled people in a community. When they push to deny shopping centers and grocery stores, they’re saying that privileged people who can afford to travel to get supplies deserve more from society than people who cannot.
At the same time that they entrench over the slightest of threats to their way of life, NIMBYs are also creating a framework in which the perpetuation of oppression is not just acceptable, but almost obligatory. They’re saying that some people deserve access to the built environment, while others do not. And their insistence on ‘smart growth’ ignores the fact that there are important decisions to make about urban planning and development strategy, and that these decisions should include things like the development of a cohesive city plan to guide decisions about how, where, and when to develop.
By entrenching against any kind of development whatsoever, NIMBYs often end up shooting themselves in the feet by being so irritating that planning commissions start approving basically whatever out of sheer cussedness. Or city planners get distracted by the endless whining and can’t focus on building up a sensible long-term plan for growth and expansion that weighs concerns about community building, the environment, and accessibility. The result is a hodge-podge of weird development that doesn’t pull together in a way that facilitates community collaboration, thus justifying NIMBY claims that development is bad.
NIMBYs block social, as well as developmental, progress. People sometimes make the mistake of allying with them over opposition to projects that really are terrible ideas environmentally or socially, and then getting sucked into the sphere of entitled NIMBYism and the notion that the entire world belongs to them and should be left exactly as-is. That’s privilege talking. The person who complains about buildings that are too high is not the person struggling to pay rent two hours away so she can live as close as possible to her job. People who moan about how ramps and railings destroy the look of historic buildings are not the wheelchair users who need those things so they can play an active role in their community. People opposing developments on the basis of the number of units, with no other context, aren’t the ones who desperately need affordable housing.
It’s time to start framing NIMBYs as they really are. It’s not just that they are anti development to a degree that’s absurd, but that they are anti development because sound development creates social opportunities.
Image: The massed NIMBY battalion, Newtown graffiti, Flickr