Why not in my backyard? Why? Not in my backyard!
NIMBYism is seen as a negative, the selfish not in my back yard reaction of 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 supposed to be 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
In fact, there is increasing recognition of the legitimacy of local communities’ reacting against development that threatens their established way of life. Yet, the people most immediately impacted may well ask the most 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 public consultation to legitimise their proposals.
Denigrating all local reaction under the singular label NIMBY also obscures the different motivations of opponents, failing 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. In some cases, no development will be better than poor development. In others, some modification, even moderation, may lead to enhancements that make a project more acceptable to locals and more attractive to the beneficiaries. Taken seriously, local opposition might result in better outcomes all round, if for example, it leads 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 expertise and reservations. This is especially so when encountered only when advanced plans are revealed to which the promoters are committed.
There is more to NIMBYism, then, than resistance for resistance’s sake. After all, the challenge of 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 of the last two decades. Neighbourhood resistance to intensification garners little sympathy from decision-makers and commentators who simply see it as pitch by those with secure housing in established neighbourhoods against those in need of the shelter and security that they enjoy. This is over-simplifying things.
Housing policies have relied too often on adoption of residential intensification to boost supply. When planners and developers choose a location for intensification because of its attractiveness, based on its current character, the risk is that they end up creating is the antithesis of what was there. Nobody wins (except, perhaps, the developer).
The result is reliance on expensive land within boundaries often ill-equipped to cope . Affordable housing under these circumstances means low cost, low quality dwellings, while the subsequent bill from over-loading ageing and capacity-constrained infrastructure - our roads, pipes, parks, and waterways – mounts. Ratepayers – existing residents and new – foot the bill.
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 report to feel unsafe [and] experience less social interaction than in lower density suburbs”.
Too often, the rush to compensate the failures of the housing market have led to alternatives that fail to deliver to the beneficiaries – the occupants of the new homes.
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 for 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 achieving equity by lowering the well-being and expectations of an entire generation, not simply those that happen to make the most noise about it.