NIMBY and the Unintended Consequence

Is it fear of change, or actual aversion that causes us to rally against new ideas? Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) is the bane of most planners as well as anyone who’s had to go through a public hearing process.  Concerned neighbors worry about the impact that a proposed project, change of use or zoning might have on their property and they speak up loud and clear at public hearings, becoming influencers of opinion and striking fear into the hearts of approval boards.  Rightly or wrongly, they bully their concerns into prohibitive restrictions or even outright banishment of a proposed change.  It’s easy to be judgy as architects and planners who understand (or think we do) that the pros outweigh the cons and know (or think we do) that all those feared unintended consequences are no more likely than a child’s fear of monsters under the bed.  We become almost pedantic in the face of these obstacles to change.

However, NIMBY is a double-edged sword.  It’s not only the narrow-minded, bigoted, or greedy who take issue.  Sometimes, those people in the trenches can run through scenarios we never envisioned that could in fact lead to disaster.  The designers and social workers behind Pruitt-Igoe thought that they were counteracting blight and providing a better social alternative to housing for the poor.  Their revolutionary design concept didn’t take long to implode, figuratively and then literally, when the project was demolished just 17 years after construction was completed. 

What’s good for the goose...
At it’s heart, NIMBY-ism is rooted in support for a concept in general, but an aversion to taking the risk of having this experiment played out as a specific where it could affect us.  How many times have you designed a project from on high, imposing what you believe is best on its users? How many times have you been part of a panel or commission who tried to mold policy around practices you deemed to be the right answer? Good intentions aren’t good enough when we are talking about things that influence real lives. We can only do that by really understanding the needs of our users, by seeing though their eyes and being willing to experience what we are asking them to live with.  The best projects do that - they are not so focused on playing to the lowest common denominator or influencing behavior that they stop being spaces that people want to inhabit.

The grand utopian vision is wearing blinders
I think that it is critical that we not feel pressure to have all the answers.  We are taught to be utopians, the examples of masters LeCorbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Baron Haussmann held up for their bold, irreverent approaches that got people to live in a modern (read appropriate) way. An arrogance is cultivated within us that just because we do our research and have conviction, we can improve the life of the average slob.  No wonder that average slob is so damn suspicious of our ideas, hatched behind their backs and forced down their throats like a good dose of castor oil.  No wonder they say “NO WAY is that happening in my neighborhood!”

The New Urbanists are on to something, whether you like them or not.  They started asking, “how do people really want to live in their cities and neighborhoods, and how can we facilitate that?”  There’s a reason that high modernism never took off and most housing developments are based on traditional references.  Oh yes, there’s an unintended consequence for the lack of design and vision, defensive planning and zoning statutes, and pandering to nostalgia that plagues most cities.  But those consequences were born out of the design and planning world’s inability to listen, understand and give vision to lives that people really want to lead.