Friday, July 25

NIMBYs and status

I just came across an article by Benjamin Ross from a 2001 issue of Dissent that explains the NIMBY dilemma cities face better than I've heard it explained before. NIMBYs (not-in-my-back-yard) are homeowners who oppose development in their own neighborhoods even at the expense of the larger community. Here's a few key points from the article:

1. NIMBYs are motivated by status, even more so than by maintaining property values. Neighborhoods that brand themselves will fight to preserve the brand identity.

"The orientation toward status shows most clearly in the intensity with which single-family zoning is protected in prestige neighborhoods near suburban transit stations. In some cases, homeowners would reap an enormous financial windfall if their neighborhoods were rezoned to allow greater density. Yet it is in just these situations that resistance to development is most intense. In Washington, D.C.’s suburban Montgomery County, where I live, the wealthy single-family neighborhoods of Chevy Chase have waged a twenty-year battle to limit the growth of offices, upscale stores, and high-rise apartments around the Friendship Heights subway station."

2. Local anti-growth activists can be found on both the right and the left.

"Ideology varies to match the local style: opponents of development in Chevy Chase led a successful campaign to pass county-wide tax limits, while the most strongly anti-development member of the Takoma Park City Council is a leftist who advocates massive increases in school spending. But these differences are labels pasted on similar goals of governance. Chevy Chase Republicans favor intrusive government regulation of land use, while many Takoma Park leftists support a high-priced country club’s efforts to obstruct construction of mass transit through its golf course. And, ignoring labels altogether, the NIMBY politicians of Takoma Park and Chevy Chase are close allies at election time."

3. NIMBYism is one of the major obstacles to New Urbanist development, and it helps explain why many well-intended New Urbanists sometimes end up building only high-end neighborhoods on greenfields.

"New Urbanist ideas have reached real estate developers who, perceiving a market demand for a less automobile-dependent life, have begun to redevelop older suburbs into denser, more urban neighborhoods of stores, offices, and homes. But frequent homeowner opposition has made redevelopment of existing suburbs difficult and costly. The added expenses reinforce the normal tendency of the real estate market to concentrate on upper-income sectors, limiting most neo-traditional developments to the high end of the market."

"When they fail to convince, the New Urbanists are inclined to appease their opponents, often yielding to the NIMBYs by locating their projects in outer suburbs far away from mass transit."

4. Environmentalists, who are virtually all opposed to sprawl, have created a double-edged sword by allying with Homeowners associations.

"In outer suburbs, where the task is to stop sprawl development, this philosophy expresses itself very logically in alliances with homeowner groups whose social bases are quite similar to their own. But the same alliance becomes more problematic in cities and older suburbs, where density must increase if the sprawl problem is to be addressed."

5. The characterization of all developers as "greedy" is a red herring.

"Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avarice—if anything, more hostility is directed at nonprofit builders of low-income housing than at the truly greedy. The adjective functions not to convey meaning but to disguise it, allowing one to criticize the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses when the real target is the ordinary people who will live in them."

the insightful conclusion,

"The automobile-centered model of metropolitan growth is collapsing under the weight of traffic congestion. Market forces are now sending a belated signal that change is needed. Yet sprawl marches on. The suburban pattern of land use was created by governmental action through zoning rules and transportation policies, and without a conscious political choice there can be no reversal of course. The decision to build livable communities in place of sprawl will not be made until we understand and confront the status-seeking that lies behind the suburban status quo."

This article is a reminder that real decisions are often made in light of the particulars ("we don't want this development here") rather than the generals ("sprawl is unsustainable"). This makes NIMBYism such an intractable and important problem. How can local communities be fully engaged in participatory democracy while also allowing for the common interest of the wider community to emerge?

No comments: