A Placemaking Journal
NIMBY Nation: Mad as hell and I don’t blame ‘em. For now.
Five years ago I felt like NIMBY activism was at a crossroads. Would it flame out, further becoming a cartoon of a once valid endeavor, or would it find its footing as torchbearers of meaningful collaboration towards community change?
Those thoughts are republished below. Next week I’ll follow them up with a look at where we’ve ended up, including a wrinkle I wasn’t expecting: the influence of social media.
You know, I gotta give NIMBYs their due. In many instances, their tireless efforts have kept the world from becoming a worse place, and that’s no small feat. But, sadly, it’s not their only accomplishment.
They’ve also kept the world from becoming a better place.
Welcome to the problem with NIMBYs. Their reactionary nature can’t tell the difference between bad change and good. And that’s a problem if you’ve any hope for building better communities.
Early on, NIMBY action centered around large, substantive initiatives with no shortage of arguable downsides. Nuclear plants. Landfills. Toxic industry. Projects universally loathed no matter where you went.
These were proposals whose negative impacts would be felt community-wide, leaving little reason to view NIMBY efforts as self-serving. Quite to the contrary, they were the work of community stalwarts, fine-tuning the art of grass roots political organizing for the betterment of the common man. Democracy at its most basic level.
Together, NIMBYs saved their homes and communities from being trampled by powerful corporate interests in cozy cahoots with nearsighted government opportunists and, in the process, earned a seemingly well-founded reputation as a sort of David in the shadow of Goliath. Progressive and passionate, they were mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore.
Or so it seemed. But then a funny thing happened.
Somewhere along the way, NIMBYs began applying these new organizational tools and techniques not just to projects presenting some level of threat but to any project offering the prospect of change. Which is to say, any project at all.
This is the point at which it would be very easy to start demonizing the NIMBY movement, painting them as the problem rather than solution and holding them responsible for the agonizingly slow process of improvement in our communities.
Sadly, though, that would be too easy. Because it’s just not that simple.
If you’re really about community improvement and not just about snark (and I admittedly teeter between the two), you have to examine not just the what but the why. Why have NIMBYs increasingly developed an opposition to everything?
The answer has little to do with development. It has to do with trust.You don’t have to be a dyed in the wool treehugger, preservationist ideologue or evangelical New Urbanist to acknowledge that, more often than not, the past fifty years of growth and development has resulted in a downward trade. That is, what we’ve built has been inferior to whatever was lost. The meadow, teeming with wildlife, that became a soulless subdivision. The historic block of downtown buildings lined with shops, leveled for a parking lot. The supersized, unwalkable regional high school dumping runoff into your basement.
There’s no shortage of reasons why people are wary when a slick developer starts talking their talk. Collectively speaking, the development community simply hasn’t offered much in the way of track record for quite some time.
Add to that the context in which development takes place. More often than not, it’s permitted — even courted — by municipal governments seemingly detached from the will of their constituents. These people are supposed to be representing your interests and instead are caving to the very forces undermining your quality of life.
Given that, how could any rational person ever believe that change could, in fact, be positive? People have no reason to trust anyone in the process, and the saddest part of all is that it’s a distrust that’s been wholly earned. An Atlanta Journal Constitution article, reporting at the time on a revised town center design working its way through public process in Alpharetta, Georgia, included this quote from a resident: “I oppose the original plan for many reasons and compliment the planners for developing a much better plan — which I still oppose.”
Such antipathy would leave us in a hopeless stalemate of lose-lose scenarios if it weren’t for one thing. There are communities out there with enlightened and accountable leadership. There are developers out there doing exceptional work, delivering value not just to buyers but to communities overall. They do exist.
Hell, I’ve met a bunch of ‘em. But you’ve no reason to trust me either.
So, instead, I offer this challenge to the NIMBY Nation: Go forth, and continue to be vigilant. By all means, be a thorn in the side of development that threatens the viability — and livability — of your town. But be equally observant of context. If your local leadership starts engaging resident ideas and direction in meaningful ways and then makes decisions in line with what you’ve asked for — in essence, if they start earning your trust — admit that you no longer have the right to use them as justification for your discontent. The burden now falls on you to stop telling them what you don’t want. And start telling them what you do want.
Once you have, if a developer then enters the picture willing to put up their money to help implement your vision, you need to cowboy up and accept that that person is now your ally. Not your enemy.
That’s the point at which you can stop fighting the war. Because you’ve already won.
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