I’ll be honest: I’ve been working up to this one. I practically started this blog just so that I could eventually write this. When it comes to the politics of urbanists and city planners, few things strike a nerve like how we use the term ‘NIMBY’. It’s urbanism’s favorite word, and like an alcoholic clutching a bottle, those in the field have a tendency to lash out at anyone who suggests we might want to put it down.
But first, let me start with a disclaimer. There are some people who use the term ‘NIMBYism’ to refer to long-standing racist, classist, and xenophobic attitudes that manifest themselves into opposition against social welfare projects. And I am not arguing that those don’t exist. There are plenty of horrible and selfish people out there who have organized against worthwhile and necessary endeavors, such as affordable housing or transit infrastructure, not for any legitimate concern but out of a deep-seated resentment that a perceived “other” may benefit from their mild inconvenience.
What I am arguing is that ‘NIMBYism’ is a terrible word to describe this phenomenon, that its usage by social progressives and urban planners is doomed to backfire on us, and that the emphasis placed on it distracts us from much more fundamental structural issues.
Nobody identifies as a ‘NIMBY’; it exists solely as a pejorative. It’s understandable why planners readily adopted the term; most urban development or community plan efforts in this day and age involve a lengthy, laborious process that is often subject to some degree of public scrutiny. When you’ve been working on something for months only to see it savaged by residents accusing you of trying to turn their peaceful neighborhood into a crime-ridden hellscape of traffic and “those” people, a little vitriol in return only seems warranted.
The problem is that ‘NIMBY’ has no concrete definition, although people use the term as though it does. It merely stands for ‘Not In My Back Yard’, whatever that may entail. The wealthy suburban landowner who doesn’t want poor people living in his neighborhood or the impoverished resident who doesn’t want a power plant to be built behind their house can both fall under the dictionary definition of ‘NIMBYists’.
Even Jane Jacobs, the beloved hero of contemporary urban planning, could be classified as a NIMBY based on her opposition to Robert Moses’ proposed freeway through Jacobs’ home neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Likewise, there’s nothing in the definition of ‘NIMBY’ that excludes those who took part in the freeway revolts and the fights against so-called ‘urban renewal’ and ‘slum-clearance’ efforts in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s.
I’m hardly the first person to note this. Last year, a land-use lawyer named Chris Bradford started a blog called Club NIMBY, with the ostensible purpose of working towards a more specific definition for the term as a means of combating ‘NIMBYs’. “Developing a sound theory of NIMBYism will, of course, enable us to define NIMBYism,” he wrote. (The Club NIMBY blog has since been locked and is currently unviewable, so I’ll have to link to this CityLab article as proof that I’m not just making this up.)
But there was a critical flaw behind the logic of Club NIMBY, and that was that a more specific definition of ‘NIMBY’ is even possible. The term exists solely as political rhetoric to be wielded against those you see as less open-minded than yourself; its vagueness is inherent. By design, it’s an epithet to be hurled in the arena of politics. To try and make the word mean something more specific is a fruitless endeavor, no matter how much you might wish it so.
Some urbanists have attempted to draw a distinction from ‘NIMBYists’ by labeling themselves ‘YIMBYists’ (Yes In My Back Yard), people who welcome development in their communities. But this approach is dangerous in its own right. In an excellent piece on Jacobin, Karen Narefsky argues that YIMBY/NIMBY is a false dichotomy, and one that fails to get at any real solution to inequality and housing affordability. By reflexively defending new developments, YIMBYism has a tendency to paint any critique of new development as narrow-minded.
YIMBYism also lends itself to free-market arguments that benefit those who are already privileged; this was particularly visible in the recent fight over Measure S in Los Angeles, where some opponents to Measure S argued that the best thing to do was allow developers to build market-rate housing and then wait for those new units to “trickle down” to the non-wealthy. But the housing market doesn’t function as a simple matter of supply-and-demand. As Narefsky points out:
The YIMBY narrative rests on an idea called filtering, which maintains that even luxury construction increases affordability: as new luxury units are built, wealthier residents move into the new housing stock instead of competing for existing lower-quality housing. Apart from the condescension — should low-income people really have to wait for housing to “filter” down to them? — this framework ignores the reality of today’s housing market. Existing housing is more likely to be turned into short-term rentals through Airbnb, flipped to a condo developer, or turned into a high-end rental than it is to be occupied by a low-income family. There is also strong evidence that rents in existing housing near new luxury housing rise more than rents in apartments that are not close to new luxury housing.
In overheated markets (read: every major city in the nation), it’s real estate speculation fueled by global capital that has created our housing affordability crisis. Much of the development that takes place in our cities happens in response to the whims of far-flung investors, not the material needs of local residents. Gentrification is ultimately about power. The YIMBYism narrative not only fails to recognize this, it’s asking that we look the other way and not ask too many questions.
And by reflexively lashing out at any criticism of new development—legitimate or otherwise—YIMBYs have also put in the most work to make ‘NIMBY’ a meaningless term. When I was attending college in Albuquerque, I saw members of the local business community refer to anyone criticizing new development as NIMBYs, even when the development in question promoted unsustainable sprawl on the edge of a city where water is a very significant concern. In Los Angeles, the residents of the Historic South Central neighborhood who fear displacement from a massive new luxury housing development have been labeled NIMBYs by local urbanists. Recently, I’ve been hearing from affordable housing advocates in Seattle who say they’ve been called ‘NIMBYs’ for voicing their displeasure with gentrification.
This is why it’s fruitless to work towards some kind of narrower definition of ‘NIMBY’. You’re not going to get anywhere by telling people that your usage of the term ‘NIMBY’ is legitimate while someone else’s isn’t. Political rhetoric doesn’t obey your nice rules of civil discourse once it gets out in the wild. Look how quickly the term “fake news”, initially used by liberals after Trump’s election to refer to dubious online stories, got embraced by the right wing to attack the mainstream media instead. The vaguer your terminology, the easier it will be for someone to twist it into a weapon against you.
In the case of ‘NIMBY’, the cat’s already out of the bag. A lot of friends, colleagues, and would-be allies who are putting in the important work of trying to improve their communities are already being labeled NIMBYs, and no one should expect this to stop anytime soon. No one is going to make things better by continuing to insist on their definition of NIMBY, or insisting that there’s a difference between “real NIMBYs” and reasonable people like yourself. It’s far too late for that now. The best thing to do is to just drop the damn word altogether.
But before you bemoan the idea of relinquishing every urbanist’s favorite word, consider the possibility that ‘NIMBY’ was actually a pretty weak insult to begin with. For all that planners and urbanists speak of it, ‘NIMBYism’ can’t be anything more than a symptom of deeper societal attitudes and structural issues, no matter how narrow your definition is. Accusing someone of being a NIMBY doesn’t get you any closer to understanding their motivations, or how they’re able to do what they do. If your only argument to obstructionists is that they’re obstructing, then you’re not cutting to the heart of why or how they’re obstructing.
Politics is ultimately about power. Understanding any political situation requires understanding who holds the power in the room. ‘NIMBY’ doesn’t help you here, because it doesn’t distinguish between the powerful and the powerless. It’s merely a label to attach to whatever local resident is getting in the way of your plans, with no regard to what those plans entail or who the locals are.
None of this is to say that we all need to start being more polite, use our indoor voices and stop calling people names (as lovely as that might be, I have little hope of that happening anytime soon). Fierce political battles beget fierce political rhetoric. But ‘NIMBY’ has become a crutch for us, and we need to be smarter in our battles. In place of ‘NIMBY’, social progressives and urban planners should adopt rhetoric that is sharper and clearer. The more specific your argument, the harder it will be for someone to turn it against you. Taking the time to seriously examine why people are opposed to a specific plan or project will either lead you to the realization that there are reasonable concerns to be found, or it will reveal darker, more selfish motivations—which you can use to formulate more pointed critiques.
There are serious matters of structural inequality that planners and progressives across the country are working to address. The forces arrayed against them are massive and daunting. And if all you can muster in this fight is calling people NIMBYs, you’re not helping; you’re merely contributing to the noise that could be turned against you in an instant. You may think yourself above such petty ‘NIMBYist’ concerns today, but tomorrow you might be fighting like hell to keep G.E. Smith out of your town. We all have our breaking point, and the question isn’t whether you have one or not; the question is whether your’s will be morally defensible.