Friday, February 26, 2021

In defence of NIMBYs

Why? Not in my backyard!  Or, why not in my backyard? 

NIMBYism is seen as a negative, a selfish not-in-my-backyard reaction by residents to any significant changes proposed for their neighbourhood. But is that always justified? It depends on who you ask. 

Certainly slamming NIMBYs makes for good press, offering developers and planners the high ground in the encounter between haves, with their commitment to the current environment, and the have-nots.  The have-nots are those (other than investors) that stand to benefit from the proposed change, be they drivers on an expanded highway, commuters on new transit connections, potential dwellers in new apartments, or workers  in new factories, warehouses, and offices.

So, it is interesting when a media commentator like Kerrie McIvor defends the NIMBYs, setting out the neighbourhood issues associated with residential intensification from the ground up.

People who know asking the questions that need to be answered

There is increasing recognition of the legitimacy of local communities  reacting against development that threatens their established way of life.  The people most immediately impacted may be the best-placed to ask critical questions.  They also have the right to ask them if council commitment to citizen engagement is genuine, and if developers rely on claims of consultation to legitimise their proposals.

Denigrating all local reaction under the singular label NIMBY also obscures the different motivations of opponents.  It fails to distinguish those that resist change as a matter of course from those whose insights and experience raise legitimate questions.

Protecting the right to do it badly?

Dismissing local opposition risks lowering the barrier to ill-conceived projects. If a proposal cannot meet the challenges raised, questions must be asked about its merits.  No development may be better than poor development.  Or, modification, even moderation, may lead to enhancements that make a project more acceptable to locals and more attractive to the beneficiaries. Local opposition can lead to better outcomes all round, leading to better standards, design, and delivery.  

Unfortunately, weak or token consultation, entrenched positions taken by advisors, and blue sky financial or fiscal expectations by promoters lead to the discounting of local concerns and expertise.  This is especially so when local issues emerge only when advanced plans, to which promoters are already committed, are revealed.

There is more to NIMBYism, then, than resistance for resistance’s sake. After all, the challenge for planning is to reconcile development with environmental and community values.

Busting down the doors – clogging up the pipes

Take the response to the failing housing market over the last two decades.  Neighbourhood resistance to intensification garners little sympathy from decision-makers and commentators who see it as pitch by those with secure housing in established neighbourhoods against the interests of those in need of similar shelter and security. 

This is an over-simplification.

Housing policies have relied too often on the simplistic adoption of residential intensification to boost supply.  When planners and developers choose a location for intensification because of its attractiveness the risk is that they end up creating the antithesis of what was there.  Nobody wins.

The result is reliance on expensive land within boundaries often ill-equipped to cope . Affordable housing under these circumstances means building low cost, low quality dwellings, with high embodied and operational energy demands and all-too-often construction defects.  It may also mean a high bill from over-loaded, ageing, and capacity-constrained infrastructure: the roads, pipes, parks, and waterways needing rehabilitation and expansion which ratepayers – existing residents and new – will have to pay for.

Looking out for the beneficiaries

Simple-minded solutions to difficult problems – a shortage of dwellings in this case – can lead to outcomes that benefit no-one. Dig deeper into the aspirations of the unhoused, and it may be that the opponents of increasing density in urban areas are championing what many people want and what apartment living fails to provide.

Local communities resisting change can be seen as the champions of the values that people today see as rights: clean air, water clean enough to swim and fish in (and drink), access to sunlight and green space, limits on noise and light pollution, a degree of visual and aural privacy, reasonable access to private services and public amenities, and security.

There is no guarantee that the aspirations of future residents will be met by pockets of high-density housing. Evidence from a study of five UK cities indicates that denser neighbourhoods are still more likely to provide poor access to quality green space”, while their residents “are more likely to feel unsafe [and] experience less social interaction than in lower density suburbs”.

Too often, the rush to compensate long-standing failures in the housing market has led to alternatives that fail to deliver the real benefits of decent housing to the intended beneficiaries – the occupants of the new dwellings.

Equity should not rely on lowering standards

So, when communities call for protection of their living space and the quality of the local built environment, they are not denying it to others. They are calling on those that can make a difference to do so in ways that add to the appeal of urban living, rather than destroy it. Urban plans that prioritise the destruction of organic suburban spaces to deliver sub-standard outcomes are about pursuing a form of urbanism that lowers the quality of city living and frustrates the pursuit of equity by lowering the well-being and expectations of an entire generation, not simply those that happen to make the most noise about it.

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