How NIMBYs Made ‘Back Yard’ Mean ‘Entire Neighborhood’

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Zooming in and out on the geographies of “where I’m from” should remind us that “locality” isn’t a fixed territorial definition. Instead, the places that matter to us and define our geographies of responsibility and concern expand and contract to accommodate the situation.

What part of a city or community makes up somebody’s “back yard”? NIMBY’s think it’s the whole thing.

11:12 AM ET

The nefarious NIMBY is one of the stock characters in today’s urban crisis. The local opposition that rises up to protest neighborhood change has become one of the familiar obstacles for ambitious planners and builders alike. Consequently, some urban reformers have argued that we need to flip the NIMBY’s negative “N” into a more enthusiastic stance towards development, joining together in so-called “YIMBY” movements that seek to clear the way for faster, bigger, and less stringently regulated urban change.

And yet simply swapping the “N” for a “Y” runs the risk of depoliticizing substantive, conflictual questions about who gets to decide how cities transform. Instead, the part of the NIMBY acronym that deserves the most scrutiny is the part which represents geographic small-mindedness: the “BY.”

NIMBY stands for “not in my back yard,” and every once in a while, NIMBY sentiment is in fact directed against a project that’s literally going to impact someone’s back yard—maybe a widened sidewalk or a buried utility line. Much more often, however, the “BY” in NIMBY is metaphorical. The people who take part in NIMBY protest are usually objecting to something that will happen near by them, in a wider area of their day-to-day life that constitutes an imaginary “back yard.”

But how, exactly, do we define the geographical limits of the area that someone cares about? In other words, how do we know what part of a city makes up someone’s “back yard”? Even in the sentence I offered in the opening paragraph—“local opposition which rises up to protest neighborhood change”—I used a descriptive sleight-of-hand. What, after all, is local? What defines a neighborhood?

The question is important to consider if we want to balance two competing principles in managing how cities, communities, and regions undergo physical and social change. On the one hand, from both an ethical and a political standpoint, the people who are most affected by a change are the ones who ought to have the most say in determining whether and how that change takes place. Geographically speaking, usually the people who are most affected by something are the ones who are closest to it. This is the principle of community self-determination, and it forms the basis of movements ranging from anti-imperialism to indigenous rights campaigns and block-level organizing.

On the other hand, sometimes achieving just and equitable goals for a larger community may require overruling the objections of a smaller, but more vocally organized, constituent community. To take one pointed example, a metropolitan region ought to have affordable housing for needy families that is both plentiful and evenly distributed throughout different neighborhoods. But privileged communities often use concerns about traffic, environmental protection, and pressure on local schools to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods. The residents of well-off neighborhoods rely on the cheap labor of housekeepers, nannies, delivery drivers, and so on, and they probably agree that these people need somewhere to live—just so long as it’s not in their own “back yard.”

And if there’s something that truly nobody wants next to them, some project for which every single community is NIMBY—a toxic-waste dump would be the classic example—then the project usually just ends up getting placed in whichever community which has the weakest ability to say no. That’s why lower-income people and people of color are much more likely to live nearby to environmental hazards. There are many cases, then, where it would be good to empower marginalized communities with more NIMBY power, not less.

The trick, then, is to figure out how to scale the geographic limits of representation and decision making so that they appropriately and fairly match with the geographic area of both the advantages and the burdens that are associated with any kind of change. For at least two centuries, urban and regional growth and interdependence has outpaced the ability of political jurisdictions to keep pace with the intensifying complexity and scale of modern life. Redrawing the boundaries of political units to match with the functional geography of urban life has long been a dream of many reformers, and from the consolidation of New York City’s five boroughs in 1898 to the present-day proposal to merge St. Louis with its county, rejiggering the institutional geography of local governance has offered one method for addressing this challenge.

Simply redrawing the lines on the map, however, usually isn’t enough to square the circle between local autonomy and regional integration. Most consolidated planning districts still rely on a geographically federated power structure in order to assuage the fears of rich (and usually white) neighborhoods about forced integration. Instead, we need to develop political institutions that can both listen to and act on the concerns of small communities, while also reserving the power to fairly and democratically overrule those concerns when the interests of the broader community demand such action. That will require both a new political geography as well as a shift in popular consciousness about how to define the geography of locality.

We’re already familiar with the shifting scale of the places that we belong to according to context. If I’m traveling overseas, and somebody asks me where I’m from, I’ll probably say something geographically broad, like “the northeastern part of the United States.” By contrast, if somebody in New Hampshire asks where I’m from, I’ll probably tell them the particular town, and if somebody in that town asks the same question, I’ll be sure to distinguish which neighborhood—geographic distinctions which would be meaningless if I were talking to somebody from far away.

Zooming in and out on the geographies of “where I’m from” should remind us that “locality” isn’t a fixed territorial definition. Instead, the places that matter to us and define our geographies of responsibility and concern expand and contract to accommodate the situation. In this example, the relevant context is how much the person I’m speaking knows about the local geography of the part of New Hampshire where I live. But in many of the more important cases, the relevant context is all about power, privilege, and the ability to control the flows of people and resources.

Consequently, many people will switch between different versions of how to define their geographic “back yard” when it suits their self-interest. For instance, when it comes to funding highways that benefit car commuters, wealthy suburbanites often argue for large-scale central planning across wide metropolitan regions, since their own suburban towns lack the financial or institutional resources to build such infrastructure. But when disadvantaged communities try to cross the same municipal lines that the highway builders so effortlessly cross, those suburbanites suddenly turn to a localist principle and vigorously oppose any plans to integrate housing, school administration, or taxation within the larger metropolitan unit. This sets up a selectively porous border: Capital and labor can pass through, but not votes or social resources.

If only we could sweep away the ability of these local refuseniks to jam up the planning and development process, say some critics, the market could adapt to the changing demographics of cities more efficiently, and more effectively manage the pressures of urban growth. According to YIMBY activists, the solution lies in changing the prevailing attitude about development from a “no” to a “yes.” These critics say that small-scale, local control of planning and development processes should be swept away and replaced by weaker regulatory frameworks in which market-driven development can steamroll community opposition.

That sounds like a progressive platform if it means overruling the concerns of local groups that represent the rich and powerful. But what if the local opposition comes from the marginalized—what if the NIMBYs are, say, an immigrant tenant rights group that opposes the construction of a luxury hotel?

Instead of replacing the knee-jerk “N” in NIMBY with a knee-jerk “Y”, as the YIMBYs do, it would be much more to our benefit to critically examine that “BY” part of the acronym. What if more people were willing to think of themselves as part of a larger community—one that encompasses not just their immediate next-door neighbors, but a broader definition of “neighbors” that would include those in the metropolitan region, and even people in the suburban and rural areas that together make up today’s integrated, interdependent systems of spatial cohesion? In other words, if we took seriously the realization that the substandard housing, disinvested public amenities, and ecological sacrifice zones present in every metropolitan area are are a part of our back yard—even if our immediate vicinity happens to be a leafy suburb or a hip Millennial block—would we tolerate the political and economic conditions that allowed them to exist?

To think that our “back yard” consists only of a few square miles or the catchment area of a single elementary school is a fantasy—or, more likely, a motivated illusion—in a multicultural nation, a globalized economy, and an utterly despatialized public sphere in the form of the internet. The NIMBY’s great hypocrisy, then, lies not in their insistence on saying no, but rather on their ability to shift the scale of their back yard. When deciding about housing or environmental protection, it is very small, but when deciding where to look for a job, or an investment opportunity, or a college to attend, suddenly it becomes very large.

The need to match our decision-making institutions with the geographies of real life isn’t just a question for urban policy, either. Even national governments can do little to curb the rise in inequality without the ability to reach outside their borders to crack down on offshore tax havens. But in terms of governing cities and regions, the problem is an urgent one. It’s here that the mishmash of local jurisdictions presents a particular problem for both rational planning and democratic justice. As one critic of Boston’s metropolitan planning wrote in 1945, the city “suffers from political institutions which are still adapted to the horse-and-buggy age although modern technology has made of the area one single whole.” This is still true of our NIMBYs today: They think and act in geographic units more suitable for the 18th century than the 21st.