Friday, September 14

Confronting my inner NIMBY

From what I read, anyone involved in land use planning butts heads with the ubiquitous NIMBYs over and over again. NIMBYs (not in my backyard) are folks who may agree with a certain project in principle, but will fight tooth and nail to place that project somewhere else; anywhere else. For example, a homeowners' association may oppose the placing of a charitable group home in their neighborhood, fearing that it could lower property values and sully the "character of the environment." Last month residents in a posh British locale did just that to a proposed house for soldiers recovering from war casualties. Not a good PR move, as it turned out.

But it's not just the unusual requests that stir up controversy. In a survey last year, the Saint Consulting group found that "73% of all Americans oppose new development in their communities." That's why so many of us can wax poetically about the spiritually degrading suburban sprawl and we all nod our heads in approval. But what do we really want? We want enough sprawl to justify our own living situation, but not quite so much that we have to share it with others. We'd rather have that preserved woodland abutting our property than another damn suburbanite. That's why we escaped the city in the first place!

In my more cynical and depressing moments I wonder how much of the political steam for many good endeavors - conservation easements, smart growth regulations, open space bonds - comes from these motivations.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in all his hyper-rational glory, famously suggested that morality rests on the principle of duty: "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." This is the first expression of what he called the Categorical (for everything) Imperative (do it). Kant poses the question to us NIMBYs: what if everyone succeeded in pushing out these necessary services from their immediate surroundings. You don't want a water treatment plant, but do you want treated water. I chose to approach this from Kant because it lends this simple principle an air of sophistication, but I could have just as easily gone with Jesus (or your grandmother): "do to others as you would have them do to you."

This is harder than it looks.

I want to keep this in mind as I pursue a vision for what our built environment can look like. Sustainable, equitable, beautiful - all of that good stuff means precisely nothing if I am personally not willing to shoulder my share of the burden when it unfolds in reality. I'm convinced that the major obstacle that lies before creating the types of communities we all want lies in the individual human heart, not primarily in our social and political machinations.

1 comment:

jhwygirl said...

an interesting take on "what would Jesus do?"

I guess we should all ask ourselves - If Jesus came to build a house next door - would I object? Would I tell him to go somewhere else?