The Social Function of NIMBYism


Opposition to new development is fraught with so many acronyms that you need a lexicon to decode them. The catch-all term is NIMBYism, sufficiently well known to merit an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, which identifies its first use in a 1980 Christian Science Monitor story. The term arose to describe opposition to large infrastructure projects undertaken by public agencies or utility companies, such as highways, nuclear power plants, waste disposal facilities, and prisons. (These are known as LULUs, Locally Undesirable Land Uses) It has now extended outward in concentric circles of opposition, each with its own acronym: NOTEs (Not Over There Either), NIABYs (Not In Anyone’s Backyard), BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), and even NOPEs (Not On Planet Earth!). It is also possible to find references to CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and NIMTOOs (Not In My Term Of Office).

In any event, opposition to development has long since entered its second phase, targeting not just LULUs, but also ordinary development projects. It is now a standard feature of the development landscape, a form of ritual performance art. As a citizen activist and author of a NIMBY handbook unapologetically observes, “Everyone is a NIMBY, and no one wants a LULU.”

The neighborhood meeting
There are good reasons why NIMBYism is so pervasive (more about that later), but it is hard to witness firsthand, say at a neighborhood meeting about a proposed condominium project. First, people complain that they did not get notice of the meeting – yet they are in attendance, so what are we to make of that? Others voice complaints that seem embarrassingly trivial to air in public in a voice quivering with outrage: the developer’s trucks are muddy or the project description misspells the name of their street. General complaints emerge about neighborhood-wide conditions that are somehow now the developer’s responsibility to address. These throat-clearing denunciations are a way to limber up for the main event, which is to dismantle the actual proposal and its proponent in any way possible.

The project-specific complaints follow familiar patterns too. The traffic in every neighborhood is, apparently, already intolerable, no matter what the transportation consultants say about “level of service.” The project will only worsen it, infringing upon residents’ inalienable right to uncongested streets.

For large-scale urban projects, the second most prevalent objection is against building height, which often becomes the currency in which trades are made. For the neighbors, height is a signifier of all other impacts. For the developer, height is directly proportional to financial feasibility. So it rapidly becomes a zero sum game, which in turn leads to gamesmanship. The developer leads with a proposal which is taller than needed, to have something to trade with; the neighbors come to understand and even expect this and accuse the developer of duplicity. Sometimes the developer overplays the opening hand by asking for a height which is deemed scandalous, thereby lighting a fire that can never be extinguished.

A third leitmotif is view. Virtually all residents believe that the Constitution protects the view from every window of their homes. Sometimes the developer (or a public official in attendance) will note that views generally are not protected as a matter of property law or by zoning ordinance, but this only further inflames the aggrieved party. The neighbors often elevate their personal views and lifestyle preferences to universal policy imperatives and are incensed if public agencies do not vindicate them. They view public officials as complicit if they express support for the developer’s position, so the officials retreat to the sidelines until the combat subsides.

Length of tenure in the neighborhood often shapes the neighbors’ advocacy. Longer-term residents will recite their credentials: “I was born and raised on _______Street” or “I’ve lived here since____.” to give their views more weight. Their opposition is often poignant: they seem to want to preserve their immediate surroundings in the condition in which they first encountered them, maybe in childhood. Newcomers, with the zeal of recent converts, are often the most vocal in resisting change to the neighborhood they have just discovered.

Some projects attract attention from advocacy groups concerned about affordable housing, historic preservation, open space, waterfront access, or sustainable design, but most opposition comes from those with a close geographic interest. While issue-oriented advocates tend to be progressive in their politics, NIMBYs come in every political stripe. Some are progressives who see their advocacy as a form of environmental protection they are bestowing on their unempowered neighbors. Some are middle-class burghers protecting the safety and stability of the neighborhood. Even libertarians justify opposing development as an infringement on their right to be left alone. It is rare to encounter vocal neighbors whose political views or personal values counteract the visceral sense that their very way of life is being threatened. Nobody, it seems, is precluded from principled opposition, no matter what their principles are.

The overwhelming majority are homeowners. If the project includes large-scale retail uses, neighborhood business owners will join the chorus. Renters rarely feel they have enough at stake, and those outside of the project’s zone of immediate impact may show up to the first meeting or two out of curiosity and then stay home, letting their more vigilant neighbors continue the fight. So eventually, the field is left to the opponents, and the most strident voices prevail. Public hearings become forums for the chronically aggrieved; in an increasingly fragmented culture, they are what pass for community.

Ironically, while the neighbors often feel helpless against sinister forces, developers lament how influential the neighbors are, even when their complaints are not factually accurate or are not encompassed within the zone of interests protected by the land use regulation at issue. The result is a shrill, dysfunctional, and seemingly interminable public conversation. Nobody seems to learn anything from the last experience, so it gets repeated with each new project. As planning shrinks in importance as a means to establish advance consensus about growth, the public approval process has become the crucible in which cities are actually shaped, one project at a time, in the most laborious way imaginable. How did it get this way?

Historical roots of NIMBYism
NIMBYism is, in a sense, just a modern manifestation of the larger phenomenon of civic engagement, a part of our national foundation narrative remarked on as long ago as de Tocqueville. Its contemporary expression arose in the second half of the 20th century, and each decade has made its own contribution to its rise. After the complacent prosperity of the 1950s, the 1960s saw the rise of citizen activism, exemplified by crusaders such as Ralph Nader, Saul Alinsky, and Jane Jacobs. The epic battle between Jacobs and Robert Moses over urban renewal in New York City (whose battle lines are still being redrawn) was based not only on their divergent views of how cities work and how to accommodate their changing physical needs, but perhaps more fundamentally on how such decisions should be made, with Jacobs pioneering citizen activism as an antidote to “top-down” planning and development decisions.

In the 1970s, environmental activism re-framed growth not just as an engine of progress but as a competition for resources and, most importantly, as a potential threat to human health and natural systems. Educated opinion leaders began to distrust technology and fear the future. This spawned landmark federal legislation, including particularly the National Environmental Policy Act, which in turn spawned many state and, eventually, local impact review programs. These institutionalized two important ideas: (1) that development projects are generators of impacts that must be assessed before development decisions are made, and (2) that citizen participation is an essential component of such reviews. Along with other protections for wetlands, endangered species habitat, air and water discharges, and, in particular, comprehensive zoning administered by local officials who are obliged to be responsive to citizen participation, these regulatory processes have created many more opportunities for public involvement. If, as its detractors say, NIMBYism is the last lawful blood sport, it is one which is not only permissible but explicitly encouraged by our legal system.

The 1980s was the decade which gave birth to NIMBYism as an art form – the break-out decade. By glorifying private initiative and sowing distrust of government, the era saw the rise of grass-roots anti-development activism as a necessary counterbalance not only to government-initiated projects like prisons and highways, but particularly to private initiatives unrestrained by government. In the 1990s, the environmental justice movement, aiming to ensure that low-income communities are not disproportionately burdened by high-impact uses, added a progressive arrow to the NIMBY quiver. Also, revenue-strapped local government began to pursue privatization strategies in earnest, creating additional impetus for citizen activism as a counterbalance.

Finally, the first decade of the 21st century has established that the shift from manufacturing to “knowledge” as the driving economic force in American cities, and the reurbanization and gentrification this has spawned, have actually increased land-use friction in many ways. It is inherently contentious to graft new uses onto existing urban tissue, where there are so many incumbents whose rights are affected. Those incumbents, especially if they are knowledge workers, tend to have wider awareness of the power of the built environment to affect their own quality of life, have a reduced tolerance for development impacts, and are sophisticated about using public processes to vindicate their concerns.

The scale of new development projects and our ability to measure their impacts have also increased over time. As the burgeoning land use regulatory regime has gradually supplanted planning, the effectiveness of public agencies in establishing publicly accepted templates for growth has also diminished. Perhaps more importantly, we have come increasingly to rely on private actors to build public infrastructure as a component of their large-scale development projects.

These factors combine to almost mandate wider citizen participation in development decisions. While civic engagement may be dwindling generally, it has undoubtedly risen in the development arena. Filling the vacuum left by minimalist government, atrophied land-use planning, and an eroding social contract, NIMBYism is the bitter fruit of a pluralistic democracy in which all views carry equal weight.

Emotional roots of NIMBYism
NIMBYism starts with identification with one’s personal surroundings. “A sense of place” is of course not a bad thing, but it spawns a deep-seated resistance to changes to those physical surroundings. This at first seems based on a boundless sense of personal entitlement: People not only place their own needs above the public interest but come close to reframing the public interest as a social organization that vindicates their personal needs. No individual wants to accept the incremental burden of meeting a broader societal need. General reciprocity—the notion that I will accommodate your wishes because I know that someday I will want someone somewhere to accommodate mine, and that’s the only way society can move forward—has been replaced by specific reciprocity: I will accede to your wishes only in exchange for your agreement to accede to my wishes (for compensation or mitigation). So a general lubricating agent in society devolves into a series of negotiated (usually contentious) transactions.

But, on closer inspection, this is not so hard to accept. Most people experience the world as an increasingly complex and bewildering place where most issues are well beyond their ability to influence and the pace of change seems to accelerate continually. This powerlessness leads them to yearn to control those things that they can, their immediate home and neighborhood being foremost, and to be tetchy if their efforts seem fruitless. But it is important to recognize that NIMBYs are not just reflexively change-averse; average Americans will move twelve times in their lifetimes, and, according to the National Association of Homebuilders, Americans have been spending record amounts in home renovation projects in the recent housing boom. The environmental change that NIMBYists resist is change imposed by others. This crucial distinction underlies virtually all opposition to development.

It is also important to recognize the role of increases in homeownership – clearly a good thing insofar as it engenders economic security, personal autonomy, and community investment. As I noted above, the overwhelming majority of project opponents are homeowners. Their home is often their largest financial asset, unprotected by diversification of risk and subject to changes in value due to neighborhood circumstances over which the homeowner has little control. While many homeowners frame their objections to development with references to larger issues such as traffic impacts on the neighborhood or broader environmental consequences, if you listen carefully, there is an implicit calculus at work: will this project tend to increase or diminish the value of my house? Since the answer to the question is often unknowable or at least not commonly understood, homeowners’ rational impulse to protect their investment shades into an irrational fear of the unknown. As behavioral economists have demonstrated, most people fear losses more than they value gains, even reasonably certain ones. So it is only natural to fear the risk of the unknown more than you value the uncertain benefits of unasked-for change.

Even when any reasonable calculus would suggest that property values would rise, say from a neighboring luxury residential development, neighbors want to capture that rise in value without suffering any impacts. After having been encouraged time and again by advertisers and public office seekers to expect greater benefits than the incumbent brand or officeholder offers without making any personal sacrifice and having been told by personal-injury lawyers that every wrong has a remedy, they have come to expect a kind of immaculate conception: zero-impact development. This is especially true when the neighbors are suburban migrants who have returned to urban neighborhoods in search of vitality and edginess, but, being used to their large-lot, single-family house, they find the density of urban life jarring. They want to lose the isolation of suburbia but not the insulation it provides from their neighbors.

The fact is that the benefits of development in the form of jobs, real estate tax revenue, or housing production are diffuse and general, but the impacts are specific and local. Satisfying housing demand by building a new apartment or condominium building is inarguably a public good, but its tiny incremental benefit to the abutting homeowner is just as inarguably outweighed by its increased traffic, noise, and other impacts. In a world in which personhood is paramount, it does not warrant support from abutters.

Constructive engagement
So where does this leave us? Though shrill anti-development sentiment is beginning to seem quaint at a time when planners, public officials, and even project proponents are more likely to embrace the ideas of Jane Jacobs than those of Robert Moses, expecting public officials to “slay the NIMBY dragon” by standing up to their constituents is naive. Stealth, misinformation, bullying, and a host of other stratagems employed by frustrated project proponents generally backfire, deepening the sense of barely submerged outrage that fuels NIMBYism in the first place. It is possibly worthwhile and certainly laudable to work to rebuild public consensus about the broader societal benefits of development, but this is at best a long-term effort.

In the meanwhile, any effective solution to NIMBYism must address its root causes: perceived powerlessness and actual impact risk. The time it takes to resolve development controversies is, in some measure, the time it takes abutting homeowners to evaluate the risk to their largest investment and adjust to impending changes to their personal domain imposed by others. The laboriousness of this process can be reduced by measures which address these root causes: control and compensation. First, although it goes against the grain of every project proponent’s deepest instincts, to overcome their sense of oppression, the neighbors must be invited to actually influence development outcomes within the bounds of feasibility. Ceding some measure of control over the design of the project eliminates the “zero sum game” negotiation that characterizes most approval processes. It often leads to creative solutions and empowers the problem-solvers and constructive participants more than the extremists.

A second element is compensation. Every project has impacts, and most fall disproportionately on an identifiable subset of people within a narrow geographic radius, who generally believe, whether they state it publicly or not, that they are entitled to some special consideration for allowing some broader social need to be met at their expense. Since government often cannot or will not play this role, it falls to the project proponent to do so. Such compensation is generally indirect: the improvement of a neighborhood park, a contribution to a local charity, support for neighborhood crime watch efforts, and the like. It is better if there is some connection between the compensation and the area of impact (e.g., owners of the tall building that will shadow a park will contribute to park maintenance, owners of the fast food restaurant will augment the neighborhood litter patrol). Reasonable people could differ about whether it’s fair, but some specific benefit is generally necessary.

NIMBYism serves many social functions. In an improvised and very democratic way, it forces mitigation measures to be considered, distributes project impacts, protects property values, and helps people adjust to change in their surroundings. It is a corrective mechanism that, if allowed to function properly, can even help to preserve a constituency for development. We owe the continued existence of many memorable places, from Washington’s Mt. Vernon to the Cape Cod National Seashore, to the efforts of past NIMBYs. In fact, if the forces that animate NIMBYism – attachment to place, increases in homeownership, and public participation in government decision-making – were waning, we would lament this more than we now bemoan NIMBYism. Though it’s not so easy to do, the only constructive approach is to accord development opponents the presumption of good faith and to engage with them. If it helps, think of it as Jane Jacobs’ revenge.

This article originally appeared in Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2008.

Matthew J. Kiefer is a partner in the Boston law firm of Goulston & Storrs, P.C., practicing in the area of real estate development and land use law. A 1995-1996 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, he teaches a course on the development approval process at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and is an active board member of private non-profit open-space, preservation, and design organizations.

Photo by Leah Franchetti.


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