The Good, the Bad, and NIMBYism pt. 3

Happy belated holidays from indYIMBY! After a couple frenzied weeks, we are returning to post-holiday programming with the 3rd and final installment in our The Good, the Bad, and NIMBYism series.

The first two installments of this series dealt with benevolent and malevolent forms of developments and asserted that, because design is integral to a neighborhood, steps must be taken to ensure community projects are beneficial to tourists, inter-city visitors, and residents alike. So what about NIMBYism? What is it and what can residents and urbanists alike do to combat its most malicious forms?

Given a renaissance of urban demand throughout the United States, masses of empty-nesters and millennials have flipped suburban preferences for urban ones, returning profit-seeking developers and their attention back to inter-city neighborhoods. However, developers must make adjustments. Building in cities hugely differs from constructing in low-density, more laissez-faire municipalities eager to increase their tax bases. To finally break ground and construct, developers confront multitudes of ordinances, preservation committees, and constraints on square footage and parking. However, beyond the disjointed, bureaucratic mess an American planning process can be, a dark menace lurks for developers -the dreaded NIMBY.

What is a NIMBY?

According to Google, “a NIMBY (acronym for the phrase “Not In My Back Yard”) is a characterization of opposition by residents to a proposal for a new development because it is close to them, often because such residents believe that the developments are needed in society but should be further away.”

Now, there  is some merit for this general definition, allotting plenty of gray-space. “New development” could be any range of things, from a landfill to a 27-story tower to a transit line. “Further away” entails not in my community, but then where? And how would that location affect the rest of “society”, or, the living creature that is a city?  Given this dissection, we establish that there can be both “positive” and “negative” (“justified” and “unjustified”) NIMBYism

We, as urbanists, cannot conflate NIMBYism as solely a black-and-white ideology despite its connotation with ignorant agendas. Granted, there are instances where a development will definitely be a bad thing for everyone and these fit into the “justified” category -however, most NIMBYism arises from a resistance to change (“unjustified”), where concerns of a few may outweigh what may truly be best for all. A community is a cohesive group of hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens that each have their own self-interests and agendas in mind. The goal here is to establish a harmony between these interests. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau eloquently states in The Social Contract,

“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.” 

Justified NIMBYism

Opposition to a project due to its proximity is a valid rationale only if well-informed locals have weighed the impact and objectively argue the project will negatively affect both them and their community. 

The general will takes common interest into account and what is good for all is good for one. To address community concerns in the public arena, arguments should be educated and well thought-out, acknowledging both pros and cons of a potential development. If after this process, the cons outweigh pros and indicate a proposal is malevolent for a community, then avenues to relocate it can be explored. This is the only possible way to establish commonality and ensure the best for all.

I would most definitely loathe a landfill three houses down even though it is an inevitable necessity of my metropolitan area. There must be somewhere else the landfill can go. And assuredly, there is. This sort of NIMBYism is not construed as wrong, it simply makes sense. I do not want my kids playing in trash. I do not want to smell trash. Easy. My rationale is justified because it does not make sense to have a dump (locally unwanted land use or “lulu”) in a residential area.

Perhaps the greatest example of productive NIMBYism is the story of Jane Jacobs and her successful campaign challenging plans to construct a freeway through Lower Manhattan. (Author’s note: This particular instance is one of the most famous of the Highway revolts, a specific form of NIMBYism during the 60’s and 70’s that proved to be benevolent for the communities they affected.)

The Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX) was a radical plan for a highway from the Holland Tunnel on the Hudson River to the Williamsburg Bridge on the east side of Manhattan. It would proceed through the city as an elevated ten-lane road through Greenwich Village, SoHo, and Little Italy. Proposed by Robert Moses (city planner would be an understatement) in the 1940’s, by 1961, his LOMEX plan would use federal urban renewal funds  to destroy a plethora of historic structures, displacing over 1,900 residents.

Community activist and renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs organized rallies, staged demonstrations, and attended hearings to block the project at every expense – correctly claiming replacing whole expanses of neighborhoods with a concrete freeway would act as a physical barrier to pedestrian activity and decimate vibrancy of streets. (She’s right: walk eastward on Michigan, Vermont, St. Clair or New York under I-65/I-70, or look at the history of Fountain Square before it was cut in two)

Eventually, with help from the press and political figures, Jacobs won her fight and the neighborhoods LOMEX would have destroyed are thankfully still intact. But this was pure, unadulterated NIMBYism.

However, it was justified.

Jacobs used insight and observations to conclude this project would have a negative impact on quality of life. Reflecting on at the world-famous neighborhoods this freeway would have destroyed proves her right. This is justified NIMBYism because educated arguments in a public forum were used to ensure her community would take the course of action most suitable for its future. Even though the Jane Jacobs case is heavily magnified under the light of NYC, NIMBYism does not have to be on the large-scale of hers to remain justified.

Researched NIMBYism is healthy, and frankly, makes sense. There will always be those in the community who don’t see things eye to eye, but given an educated public forum where pros and cons can be discussed openly, the community can come to a common conclusion ensuring that what happens in their neighborhood is what is for the best.

But let’s take a look at the gray-space where things get a bit convoluted.

Unjustified NIMBYism

“Those resistant to change are destined to perish.”

NIMBYism for the sake of stopping developments whatsoever, in spite of the benefits a proposal may bring, is ignorant and gives NIMBYists their negative connotation. Opinions determined only to mitigate change are not justified, and often give neighborhoods a bad name while diminishing prospect of a greater neighborhood for everyone. Forward-thinking and educated citizens understand that growth is a beast that cannot be stopped, therefore, in the best interest of their community, municipalities must turn growth into its most benevolent form. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser states poignantly,

“Ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, should have more say over what happens to them, but community control must unfortunately be limited, because local communities often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences of banning building…many of the world’s cities, both new and old, have arrayed rules that prevent new construction at higher densities. Sometimes these rules have a good justification, such as preserving truly important works of architecture. However, sometimes these rules are mindless NIMBYism or a misguided attempt at stopping urban growth. In all cases, construction restrictions tie cities to their past and limit the possibilities for the future. If cities can’t build up, then they will build out.”

If anything, NIMBYism is derived from a deep-seeded desire to protect the integrity of a neighborhood someone has invested in, their “home”. However, it is also, due to evolutionary instincts, a rudimentary facet of human resistance to change. Most humans yearn to have a say on what goes on in their stomping grounds.

Uninformed citizens do not necessarily understand what is best for their community, and instead think of what is best for them, with little thought given to how future developments affect the inter-connected pieces of every member of a city. As Mindy Fullilove argues in Root Shock, her expose on the destruction of inter-city neighborhoods,

“The principle is simple: we -that is to say, all people- live in an emotional ecosystem that attaches us to the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as beings caught in a single, universal net of consciousness anchored in small niches we call neighborhoods or hamlets or villages.” 

Can we ever become something other than an extension of evolutionary instinct?

Aligning with the best interests of the community is paramount, but at the end of the day, what everyone wants is to have a better place to live. Unjustified NIMBYism overlooks educated processes to determine if a project is beneficial, simply becoming a sad by-product of humanity’s resistance to change

Simply arguing against something because it doesn’t seem like a good idea without any sort of facts or research makes your argument look ignorant and gives NIMBYism a bad name.

(*Author’s note: A previous version of this article used inappropriate tone and for that, we apologize. All members of the community, old, young, right, left have to work together and try to understand each other’s concerns if anything is to be accomplished.)

The forest fertilizes itself by burning down

We all want to live. But for a living entity such as a city, change is necessary, renewal is inevitable and the city needs food. Allowing things to remain the way they are only incites decline and disinterest. However, this comes with the knowledge that not every new change will be for the benefit.

This being said, it is impossible to stop NIMBYism -there will always be those who will be resistant to change. But we cannot overlook its benevolent forms and we must fights its malevolent iterations, the goal being a better city with a brighter future for all involved.

We cannot allow a few self-interested citizens to cause detriment. It is our job as urbanists to turn public participation in all its forms into a tool for smart, benevolent growth that stimulates and benefits all members of our communities.




  1. I’m an urbanist but I see things a whole lot differently than you. I believe in community in every sense of the word. Part of that is about respecting stakeholders who were there before me, even if they don’t see it my way. I don’t affix labels like NIMBY to them because life is weird and funny and the odds are pretty good that they know more than I do simply because they have been there longer. Is it wrong, for example, to oppose a project with density inconsistent with current development? No, certainly not in all cases. Not even close.

    There’s this odd obsession among some (most) young urbanists in Indianapolis with building things simply for the sake of building them. I see it here and on other blogs. As long as it looks cool and urban, it’s good enough. This is nonsense. It is people that make a city urban, and if you fill a city with people who are demographic clones, you have a shopping mall.

    The reality is that if you really want to build the kind of urban space you claim to want, you have to be willing to work with disparate groups of people who hate your guts and see it differently than you do. I don’t think you have it in you. Sorry, but that’s the way I see it. All these new buildings are cute, but they are not community any more than the Robert Taylor Homes i Chicago were community. It’s all so avoidable but some lessons, it appears, need to be learned the hard way. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Community – Common unity. Totally agreed about respecting wishes of neighbors -that’s why the process of weighing pros and cons with neighborhood members was discussed. Also mentioned was the fact that not everything should be built! That is why NIMBY is not necessarily a bad word, again something mentioned in the article.


    2. I have to agree with Ron Perkins here. While I am generally a supporter of increased density in light of Indy’s sprawl, and I definitely support the Red Line, I think the Ransom Place case is unique and points to the fact that you can’t just lump everyone who objects to some new development in the “unjustified NIMBY” category.

      Depending on who you are and your experiences, your definition of a justified/unjustified objection to a development will vary. In the context of the history of Ransom Place and other areas of the near westside (where historically African-American neighborhoods were acquired strategically through eminent domain and other means by the city to make way for IUPUI’s campus and parking lots, and other developments), you can’t call residents bringing up those concerns a “scare tactic” or “misinformed.” That was something real that happened, and caused disruption to an existing community without taking them into account in the planning process.


  2. I like so much of your article that I’m hesitant to even mention the negatives. Like you, I have no problem with the word NIMBY, and I disagree with Ron Perkins’ assessment that “the odds are pretty good that they know more than I do simply because they have been there longer.” After all, virtually nothing would get built anywhere if we succumbed to NIMBY attacks, and there’s always someone who has lived longer than the newcomers. Where do we draw the line between the new arrivals, with their far-flung ideas, and the more protectionist old-timers? Clearly it’s not so simple. Some people use their I’ve-been-here-longer argument to pull the drawbridge up for anyone and everything. Some people can actually remember when College Avenue was an interurban corridor, and that what we have now is a far cry from what it was back then. Meanwhile, others see that the only way community can exist is through single-family homes, which, whether intentionally or not, seems to be what Ron Perkins condones …and, if I’m interpreting him correctly, I disagree with him on that account as well.

    But it’s equally too complicated to distinguish justified and unjustified NIMBYism–and on this point, I agree with Ron Perkins and take issue to some of what you say, particularly in the last few paragraphs. You have to work with these people who hate your guts, and, from this article, you’re showing you’re happy to stoop to their level, or below it, even. Who gets to decide what is well-informed? Why was Jacobs such a “good” NIMBY? After all, she was objecting to a transportation innovation–a freeway–that Moses and his proponents deemed would bring the five boroughs closer together. History has vindicated Jacobs, but we often only hear Jacobs’ side of the story, which makes Bob Moses out to be the villain. As for Indy, what other evidence do we have to presume now that the Red Line will have a net positive effect? I support the Red Line and am frustrated by many of the objection arguments, but they aren’t necessarily any better or worse informed than anyone else. The battle comes partly through information, not by branding a side “right” and another “uninformed” or characterized by “lack of post-secondary education”, or, for that matter, the sneeringly elitist “conservative” versus “liberal”. But both sides have information and research to corroborate it–so then it comes down to putting that information into a convincing context…i.e, the argument.

    And there’s the rub. Who do you expect to win with such an argument, labeling people as having “Fox News-ian scare tactics”? How do you expect to pull the moderates to your side? (I’m glad you refrained from asserting that they all go out to eat at Applebee’s, but that almost seemed like the next generalization you’d lob at them.) No matter how shrill or unaesthetic the blog may seem, it is essential to take the high road. Eventually the collegeavenueindy crowd will catch wind of this website, and it could only serve them well in their recruitment of other remonstrators.

    I would have PMed you if I had known how, but I strongly encourage you to rethink the language in the last one-third of your article. Not only does it seem mean-spirited, but it undercuts the voice of authority you confidently establish in the first two-thirds of this article. If you don’t wish to publish my comments, I completely understand. I see you as a great potential voice on these matters and I hope we can partner, even if my connections to Indy these days are fairly minimal. Keep up the good work but please don’t cut off the nose to spite the face.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, in hindsight, the latter third was belligerent and will be rectified. Thank you for your insight and wisdom!


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