NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard. It is a social trend in Canada and other parts of the developed world in which a local group of usually wealthy (often retired) citizens enjoying the status quo, block the growth of the community that they live in. The reasons are as varied as the development projects being opposed but are often selfish, short sighted and irresponsible in nature. How can we derail the growth of NIMBYism, strengthen democracy and enable good governance?
It starts by recognizing that everyone is a NIMBY at heart.
We all want to be kings or queens in our own country manors free of noisy neighbors yet have easy access to the services of a big city. We want our cake and be able to eat it to.
Development creates change in our communities. Change creates uncertainty, takes us out of our comfort zone and creates fear of the unknown. But if we are to achieve the common goal of improving our communities then development is required. Balanced development improves our standard of living, our environment and economic efficiency. It creates jobs, funds improved health services and educational opportunities. Many people do not like change, yet change is the only constant in a modern world.
Civic democracy enables everyone to have a voice in the balanced development and governance of our nation. Peace, order and good government with homes, jobs, low taxes and a clean environment for all. NIMBYism cares not for inclusivity, balance or democracy. It is a base human condition that rejects change and pushes all of us to dominate our world to protect what is “ours”. The key goal of NIMBYism is to stop, divert or delay development. Build that subdivision, supermarket highway or airport somewhere else! Prove that it is needed at all, and if it is go put it in someone else’s back yard.
Pro-development voices are almost always experts in their fields, city planners and staff, construction engineers, developers, and industry advocates. They argue for development with facts, real world data-based estimates and expertise. They are often subject matter experts working on a project for years, presenting carefully assembling data and resources. Their goal is balanced growth knowing that they must create a win-win balanced project to get it approved. A project in line with a regions existing development plan, zoning and building regulations. They are efficiency and are reality focused.
Those opposed to development are usually local citizens who are just happy with the way things are. Individually or as part of a local group (often organized under an “environmental banner”) their arguments against development are heavy on emotion and thin on facts. The goal, to deter development. To stop the change or at least delay it as long as possible.
In the new world of political absolutism enabled by social media, insults and misinformation are often the weapons of choice. A means to an end. A way of muddling the work of experts and scaring away investors. However extreme the means, some will see them as justified by the end result of blocking development.
Many NIMBY tactics are recognizable by anyone who still remembers being called names during an elementary school recess or an encounter with a local bully. As adults it can be entertaining to watch and easy to make fun of. But they can drown out logic, enable bigotry and exhaust the institutions of governance. It is important to discuss these tactics so as to disarm their effectiveness and support civic debate.
Nimbyism is not a new social trend but has been amplified by the appearance of social media and the decline of traditional ethical facts-based news reporting. Just like the elementary school shouting matches, emotion and name calling, not facts often dominate debate online. These online debates can be divisive and create challenges for civic leaders. In a western democracy, governance is founded on a balance of logic, ethics and emotion (Logos, Ethos and Pathos). Enabling emotion to overwhelm logical and ethical decision metrics destroys good governance.
The target of much of the emotion, name calling, and misinformation is often city employees and elected officials. The very people hired or elected by the majority of voters to adhere to long established development plans, civic ethics and regulations. While some politicians are attacked others see NIMBY groups as a resource to be channeled to further their own political ambitions. A way of tarnishing an opponent, creating division and political opportunity.
It can take a lot of courage for a mayor, or other councilors to ignore the temptations of emotion driven politics (popularism) and make decisions based on principled logic. To encourage adult like decision making.
The province of Ontario, Canada is expanding the powers of local Mayors. “Strong Mayor” powers are intended to help combat the political hijinks encouraged by NIMBYism and to promote adult behavior among elected officials.
Strengthening institutions is just part of the solution, ultimately voters must understand the dangers of NIMBYism. It is human nature that homeowners in a quiet neighborhood of million-dollar detached family homes do not want a new row of lower cost town houses, a shopping center or highway built nearby. But what happens to our city if a development that has been in the cities plans for decades, is clearly needed and meets all zoning regulations, is not built? Higher taxes, less opportunity, greater social stress, higher crime rates can be the result.
No is the easiest and among the most emotional words in the English language. Constantly saying no to balanced growth and good planning has a cumulative cost.
Over time the very stability cherished by those that oppose change will be undermined.
Saying yes, but not in my back yard is just irresponsible. A means of shuffling your own responsibility, fears and inconveniences onto the shoulders of others while still reaping many of the rewards. Working together to achieve balanced growth is the right path but also the hardest.
Each development project and those that may oppose it are unique. But much of the basic tactics being used to oppose them are similar and worth a deeper look. These tactics can be broken into three categories, Puff, Huff and Blow. What are they and how should those entrusted with good governance respond?
The NIMBY Huff – This is our backyard so do what we want! How dare you do or say something we, the most important, most knowledgeable people in the room, do not approve off! Are you in the pockets of developers? How dare you ask questions of us!
The NIMBY Blow – Be gone, go build it somewhere else. This development is in the wrong place, or not needed at all. Now take your corrupt money-grubbing ways and despoil someone else’s backyard with your investment. This is our community, our culture, our ways, our right to banish you, be gone!
The common theme with these tactics is the lack of an adult like sense of responsibility.
For someone who cares not for his or her own credibility, today it takes virtually no effort to toss some misleading bullshit out into the public sphere. For experts on the subject who care for their reputations, it takes enormous effort to craft an evidence-based argument for development and against disinformation. Now multiply that asymmetry over and over again. That is the cost of countering the effects of NIMBYism on civic planning and development.
For a strong government, open to everyone, based on the core values of logical ethical governance, NIMBY tactics can be a nuisance. For a weak government with inexperienced politicians or those bent on infighting, NIMBY tactics can and have destroyed good governance.
Talking is always good. Debate and discussion are how we find truths and communicate our understanding of the world to others. But this is being challenged by the NIMBYism we see too often projected on social media. It is important to remember that the NIMBYism you see on platforms such as Twitter is a luxury of an online fantasy world. But now that fantasy of “me-first” absolutism (idealism to some) is challenging the functioning of our Democracy. Social Media has enabled old political tactics of the school yard bully to block development projects critical to everyone’s future.
The housing and infrastructure crisis created by NIMBYism can be defeated. But it takes elected officials with the courage to stand up to the school yard bully. It requires leaders with the ethical compass to avoid the temptation to profit from the housing scarcity that NIMBYism creates. Our leaders need the ability to understanding, recognize and the courage to call out undemocratic tactics. Elected officials with the insight to see past the Puff, endure the Huff, and counter the Blow of those of a self-anointed irresponsible few undermining balanced development.
Ultimately the cure for NIMBYism is to recognize that it is a window into the soul of the child in all of us. But we live in an adult world, and we need to elected adults to lead us together into the future.
Only voters can stop NIMBYism by electing leaders who, regardless of political strip, are responsible adults. Leaders focused on providing balanced growth and civic services within a city’s budget constraints. Leaders who do not abdicate responsibility. Leaders that stand up to NIMBYism to build affordable housing and new infrastructure. Leaders that unite, not divide our cities and our nation.