Let’s stop calling people “NIMBYs”

In my first post here, I come to you, oh humble readers of streets.mn, hoping to change your mind about one of the trendy words we urbanists throw around too often.

The acronym NIMBY, which of course stands for “Not In My BackYard”, popped up at some point a few decades ago and has since wiggled its way into the lexicon of tenured professors of urban planning and Star Tribune commenters alike. An approximate definition is someone who understands the broader societal value of something but doesn’t want said thing anywhere near property that they happen to own.

It’s easy to think of potential examples of NIMBYism that are close to the approximate definition—opposition to things like airports, oil refineries, prisons, and the like. The problem is that, at least locally in a city like Minneapolis, that’s rarely how the term ends up being used. It’s almost always used in conjunction with some high profile infill development, and hardly ever in reference to, say, increasing the garbage burning capacity of HERC (…the garbage burner).

At some point, we changed its meaning to be a catchall dismissal of people who are opposed to a given development, regardless of circumstances. This isn’t fair and it’s definitely not productive. Case in point: The instance where I first started to be annoyed by reckless “NIMBY”-accusing was during the Lyndale Trader Joe’s proposal about a year ago. I found myself and others being called NIMBYs for opposing the proposal—but we opposed it because the land use was terrible! And shoot, the site wasn’t even in my backyard.

I’ve also noticed that when we do this, we have a tendency to start painting with very broad brushes, which is just as unproductive. In particular accusations of racism fly quite freely, which is a bit of a sport in Minnesota anyway, but again isn’t very helpful. Even if we don’t always agree with our opponents when they’re opposing a project, it’s a bit of a leap to immediately throw them into Klan hoodies. There are legitimate, or at least understandable, reasons why a homeowner may oppose a six story apartment building going in next door to their one and a half story bungalow.

I guess the point is that when you just roll your eyes and call someone a NIMBY (or more likely, type it about them anonymously on the Internet amongst people you already agree with) you’re simplifying and trivializing a complex and important issue. If we want to change the status quo, we absolutely have to do a better job of communicating with the public. And quite frankly, we need to actually show up to some of these neighborhood meetings in the first place, instead of distantly complaining about how they don’t represent the best interests of our cities as a whole. There will always be people who are rabidly and blindly opposed to any change. But there are plenty of people who simply like things the way they are–and if we can convince enough of those folks that some changes, smart changes, could make their neighborhoods even better, we may someday live in a world where this lot isn’t across the street from Lake Calhoun.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.