NIMBYism, Urban Development, and the Public Involvement Solution

NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) activists are one of the most important and least understood issues in contemporary American urban planning. A recent national survey found that roughly one-quarter of all Americans reported they or someone in their family has actively opposed a development project. Although opposition to development is widespread and use of the term common, like gentrification, the word can elude definition. To some, NIMBYs are people who oppose environmentally harmful facilities like garbage dumps, to others they are people who oppose development perceived to lower their property values, and some think they’re just people with “unreasonable” complaints about development. One article I read argued we needed lots more NIMBYism to force capitalism to rethink the very necessity of things like waste incinerators.

I think the term implies a failure of urban planning and public participation. But first, let’s take a look at how it’s usually viewed.

The term barely makes a mention in some of the field’s standard texts. The Practice of Local Government Planning, a bestselling standard reference manual for urban planners, mentions it only in connection to siting facilities with a large environmental impact, like waste treatment plants. Donald Elliott’s reformist A Better Way to Zone mentions the term, but provides no help grappling with the concept. Elliott describes NIMBYism as when “elected officials deny a proposed development that substantially meets all applicable standards because of the opposition of immediate neighbors.” Writing from his perspective as a land use lawyer, he argues there is “usually” a technical reason for rejection, but concedes “they sometimes deny even without a good reason.” He divides NIMBYism into two flavors, early and late. The first is to be expected and weighed by the elected officials making the decisions, the second prevented. The author argues the solution to the problem is to eliminate opportunities for public involvement. After all, an administrative reviewer would simply correct the technicality and allow the entire project to pass. In order to “depoliticize” the zoning approvals process, citizen input opportunities should be trimmed. “Not holding a public hearing when it could easily be abused is as much a part of good governance as holding public hearings at the planning, zoning, and initial review stages.”

I disagree with his definition and solution. First, focusing on technicalities misses the point. Urban development is sufficiently complex and politicized that determined opponents have no shortage of methods to block development, the legal facts of the case aside. The problem has to do with the character of the opposition. Second, cutting some hearings would certainly ease the burden on public officials who have to sit through them and listen to complaints, but it does nothing about the underlying frustrations. His proposal begs the question: if there is no hearing, will anyone be disgruntled? I tend to believe they will. If people are unhappy a highly technocratic process would simply intensify opposition earlier or through other channels, such as lawsuits.

Samuel Stanley thinks that the problem is to distinguish between “legitimate concerns” and “reactionary hostility to anything that might upset the status quo,” arguing “The role of the planning board chair and planning staff is to guide the members of the planning board and city council through this process to ensure that community benefits are maximized and external costs minimized.” This characterization also misses the essence of the problem. What is a legitimate concern to one person is an irrational hostility to another.

The key to understanding NIMBYism comes from political science, not the technicalities of zoning. NIMBYism occurs when a politically unrepresentative minority exacts unreasonable costs on the larger community, up to and including blocking otherwise supported developments. This definition comes from a provocative article by Morriss P. Fiorina titled “Extreme Voices: A Dark Side of Civic Engagement” that appears in this text.

In the article he describes the case of a private school in Middlesex, Massachuessets, that sought a modest expansion of their campus for new athletic fields. He estimates the plan would have originally won approval through a general referendum by a margin of perhaps two or three to one, however “the subsequent proceedings were dominated by a small group of citizens implacably opposed to the Middlesex plan.” Over a seven year process of which he estimates 1/2 to 1% of Concord’s 10,800 voters participated in meetings the school spent at least $400,000 and the city over $10,000 in consultants and fees. He concludes “to some, the preceding case illustrates grass-roots democracy … to others, the preceding case illustrates the opposite of grass-roots democracy: a few ‘true believers’ were able to hijack the democratic process and impose unreasonable costs–fiscal and psychological–on other actors as well as the larger community.” According to a 2006 Boston Globe article, the plan was still being debated 13 years after the original proposal.

To Fiorina, the problem with the events lies not in the minutia of zoning, but the unrepresentative outcome. He concludes that “the kinds of demands on time and energy required to participate politically are sufficiently severe that those wiling to pay the costs come disproportionately from the ranks of those with intensely held extreme views. Given that people cannot be forced to participate, the alternative is to get the costs down.” Ironically, the solution to the “extreme voices,” empowered by participatory processes is more participation: “Thus, the only possibility is to go forward and raise various forms of civic engagement to levels where extreme voices are diluted.”

Understandably, the people who suffer the financial consequences of NIMBYism have the clearest understanding of the problem — and its solution. The Urban Land Institute (where I am working this summer) is a professional organization made up mostly of real estate developers. The institute has published two separate works for the benefit of their members on opposition to development, Winning Community Support for Land Use Projects in 1992 and Breaking the Development Logjam in 2006. The first identifies three sources of opposition to development: a lack of information, a lack of involvement, and a true conflict of interests. The manual identifies the remedies for each source: public information, public participation, and negotiations. The more recent Breaking the Development Logjam comes from a similar perspective, observing

The guardedness, disillusion, and cynicism in evidence will not be put to rest by standard procedures that call for a public hearing or two. Citizens know that such hearings typically offer few opportunities for understanding the real effects of proposed developments, and almost no chance for reasonable discourse about the pros and cons of a proposed project.

The book argues its “premise is that when people are well informed about community development in general, and proposed project in particular, the likelihood of securing their support for a project greatly increases.”

I’ll discuss the implications of this conclusion for the planning profession in a subsequent post on Planetizen. The bottom line here is that people serious about changing the status quo in American cities must have a robust understanding and strategy for handling NIMBYism. Thanks to rapid changes in the mechanics of planning — the goals of written plans and character of the zoning — higher density, pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhoods are increasingly legal again. What remains is the public engagement strategy to minimize the size and ranks of the vocal minority and convince American communities they’re the right form of development for our communities.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


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  2. “premise is that when people are well informed about community development in general, and proposed project in particular, the likelihood of securing their support for a project greatly increases.”

    Often citizens lack of understanding of the process leads to opposition in of itself and creates a hostility. So I’d definitely agree that if people had better information that you may resolve some NIMBY related issues. Though from the numerous public hearings and community meetings that I’ve watched it often seems there is a fear of change that is what really needs to be overcome.

  3. I always say that the biggest drawback of planning school is that the curriculum barely acknowledges the political aspect of planning — all the people who review site plans, zoning, area plans, master plans are political actors operating within a political context, small p and big P, and there is little instruction or exposure on how to navigate these politics.

  4. Pingback: Dealing With NIMBYs | Market Urbanism

  5. Rob,

    Your point that understanding of NIMBYism rests not in planning but in political theory is accurate and incisive. Underpinning many of the ideas you’ve just expressed is the logic of collective action (which is also the title of a brilliant book by Mancur Olson). It’s really pretty simple – small groups with concentrated interests will form easier, lobby harder, and be more successful than very large groups with diffuse interests. The sugar lobby is a common example here; a very small group of US sugar producers gain millions (billions?) from protective tariffs, while 300 million US consumers are forced to pay a few extra cents on anything they eat that contains sugar. The tariffs remain because the small group cares more than the large group.

    Likewise, with NIMBYism, the people who scream and wail are the ones with the most to lose. Meanwhile, those who stand to benefit are much larger in number but not as committed. This is not easily combatted, but the involvement of elightened activists is critical. When it comes to tariffs, economists can be a strong force in opposition to inefficient tariffs designed to benefit the few at the cost of the rest of us. When it comes to development patterns, we need city planners and other activists (such as your blog readers) to work on behalf of the “correct” (efficient, enlightened, whatever euphemism you prefer) outcome as vehemently as the NIMBYs work for the status quo.

    One more thought. An interesting thread of political theory involves the imperfections of democracy. One of the more salient criticisms is the idea that one person=one vote does not factor in the intensity of people’s preferences. If 51% of the people are mildly opposed to a policy, but 49% are enthusiastically for it, I think that the policy should be enacted, despite the simple will of the majority. The one positive thing to be said for NIMBYism is that it is one way of expressing intensity of preferences. The people in a neighborhood generally are the ones with the most to lose, so their complaints should not be ignored. However, they do need to be weighed against the benefits that could accrue to others. People like us need to be very vocal about those benefits to others, so that the merits of each side can be weighed appropriately.

  6. Great perspective on NIMBYism. This is the kind of conversation that needs to happen in planning circles. There are so many interesting directions of inquiry this post could lead to.

    I agree with your conclusion, and I would also add that, in a sense, the genie of public participation is already out of the bottle. People like you and I are using communicative technologies that Jane Jacobs could only have dreamed of. Even if we wanted to cancel those meetings and cut the microphone off in the middle of a rant, the public will still find a way to be intimately involved. As they should be.

  7. Pingback: The Goodspeed Update » Blog Archive » Public Involvement in U. of Maryland East Campus Planning

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