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.

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4 Responses to Let’s stop calling people “NIMBYs”

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 10, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Well said. I’m going to start calling people who call people NIMBYs “Reckless NIMBY Accusers”, or ReNAs.

    For example, “God, you’re such a ReNA!”

  2. Alex May 10, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    I propose we pin this post to the top of the home page for a while.

    ps nice use of featured image, Nick.

  3. Evan Roberts
    Evan May 10, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    The opposition in Rondo to the Central Corridor crystallized some of this issue for me, which is that some of the current debate is generational. (But it’s wider than Rondo)

    Anyone in their 50s and older saw some terrible urban design and planning foisted on American cities between [at least] World War II and the 1970s. And a lot of those terrible policies were sold as bringing great benefits to many people. So, now when a new (resurrected?) vogue of ideas about cities is proposing to change things and make them better, who wouldn’t be suspicious of urban planners promising change will be good?!

    Moreover, most of us are focused on the short term. New buildings or new light rail brings known short-term inconvenience. If you’re an existing home owner and basically happy in your situation, why suffer known inconvenience now for someone else’s benefit years from now?

    There are probably other good reasons to be suspicious of change, but acknowledging them is a good first step to dialogue. Changing local land use and transport means a lot of local conversations that start by acknowledging and respecting differing views.

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