Last week Harvard history professor Naomi Oreskes defended the public figure that many planners love to hate: the NIMBY. In a column in the Washington Post entitled, "Stop hating on NIMBYs. They're saving communities," she argues that "NIMBY" does not deserve the pejorative connotation that many in the planning community naturally ascribe to it. She focuses on an example from New Hampshire, where communities have raised opposition to a high-voltage transmission wire from a hydroelectric plant in Quebec.
Who would be against power lines, she wonders? Anyone who values, "quiet, safety, security, and peace of mind." The beauty of the New Hampshire landscape, and all the therapeutic benefits that come from it, justifies opposition to the power lines. Her argument is as convincing as it is obvious.
Even so, Oreskes writes that opponents have been "dismissed" by the project's supporters. The puzzling thing about her argument is that she writes that "communities and individuals [including, presumably, herself] who oppose fracking, nuclear power, high voltage power lines, and diverse other forms of development have all been accused of NIMBYism." Accused by whom? I know of few Americans who would welcome a nuclear power plant anywhere near their backyards, and for good reason.
Given that she's writing about New Hampshire, the stunning but un-captioned photo of a skyline (Chicago, maybe?) that accompanies Oreskes' piece is misleading. She is really referring to rural NIMBYs opposed to big-time infrastructure projects with deep-pocketed backers -- she doesn't touch on the urban situation at all. To most urban planners, the classic NIMBY is an urban resident who opposes intensive urban development, such as an office building or large, high-density residential development. They base their opposition on much the same grounds that Oreskes cites: aesthetics, environmentalism, community character.
In New Hampshire, these positions may be genuine. In cities, they are often—not always, but often—disingenuous. Oreskes writes that many of the people who vilify the opponents of the power lines are in fact those who would profit from their construction. No surprise there. You have to take things with a grain of salt when your bête noire is Mr. Burns.
Progressive urban planners, many of whom are avowed environmentalists, often decry NIMBYism in cities because it can stand in the way of genuine improvements. All too often NIMBYs obstruct projects that are intended to revitalize neighborhoods, supply needed housing, or even create environmental benefits. Many urban projects, such as mixed-use apartment buildings, are often oriented towards transit lines and walkable neighborhoods. They often help reduce traffic and energy use. Try getting one of those past the local homeowners association unscathed. (Hint: It's difficult.)
Oreskes thus misses a crucial nuance: the ethics of NIMBYism depend largely on the kind of environment that you're trying to save. A pristine White Mountains peak suffers different impacts from development than does a block on Hollywood Boulevard with a subway underneath it. Many planners accustomed to these urban battles would surely recoil at Oreskes' suggestion that we indiscriminately "stop hating on" those NIMBYs who oppose developments purely out of self-interest.
Oreskes writes, "Most supposedly NIMBY arguments are not NIMBYist at all….they are about preserving beauty, safety and integrity of communities." If you consider this statement in full, then it's easier to come to terms with NIMBYism. NIMBYism isn't inherently bad just as not all development is inherently good. The value of opposition, and even obstructionism, depends not only on the merits of this or that project but also on the initial "beauty, safety and integrity of communities." Only then can we decide whether an intervention is good or bad. The same goes for our decisions about obstruction: just as planners shouldn't always "hate on" NIMBYs, neither should they support them indiscriminately.
The main streets and steeples of New Hampshire's towns are the stuff of dreams for many of us who live in urban America. Those communities, and many others both urban and rural, are well worth "saving." Every community not worth saving is, by definition, one that should be improved. The real NIMBY's — the ones who deserve the derision — are those who don't recognize the difference.