NIMBY stands for the phrase "Not In My Backyard". NIMBYism is a pejorative term that refers to an intense opposition by residents of an area, to a proposal about a new development in their neighborhood. They publicly oppose proposals regarding structural developments such as airports, dams, nuclear power plants, prisons, landfills or retail developments. Let us explore this global phenomenon and try to gauge its social impact.
The term NIMBYism was coined in 1980 by British writer, Emilie Travel Livezey, in an article ‘Hazardous Waste’ published in the Christian Science Monitor. It was later popularized by British politician Nicholas Ridley, who was the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment. NIMBYism is mostly characterized by the disagreement to the location (near to residential localities) of the development rather than an opposition to the development itself. In fact, the residents might welcome the idea of the development as long as it was some place else. The nimbies usually perceive the effects of such a development as negative or noxious; however, even innocuous facilities such as churches have been known to be regarded as NIMBY facilities.
A Selfish Agenda?
Although the term was coined in the 1980s, the concept of community activism to protect the common local assets with which they identify as a group and are emotionally attached to, is believed to be much older. NIMBYism originates from lack of adequate awareness, fear and/or inherent suspicion of ulterior motives. Factors such as race, income, source of income, national origin, ethnicity and family status tend to unify the affected group of people such that they’re encouraged to publicly voice their disapproval.
The communal undertones to it suggest that the syndrome has perhaps been in existence from ancient times. Many potentially hazardous developmental programs have been shelved due to the rise of NIMBYism, especially in the 1980s. However, in recent times, nimbies have been accused of perpetuating a self-protectionist agenda while conveniently ignoring the “greater cause”. This brings us to a question, “Is NIMBYism a good thing or do the far-fetched anxieties and misplaced fears of the NIMBYists prove to be a constant hurdle to implementing developmental projects and bringing about socioeconomic changes?” A discussion of the social impact of NIMBYism would mean measuring its pros and cons.
NIMBYism: Impact on Society
Pros of NIMBYism
- Educating the Opponents: An important and obvious advantage of NIMBY reactions is the developers’ fielding of several different opinions and views. The people and offices involved in the development are under obligation to relay information and educate the potential opponents about any proposal in advance, lobbying for support and ultimately building consensus.
- Upholding the Democratic Process: Public engagement and mitigation measures are now taken seriously by most developers, town planners and government officials as a consequence of the corrective mechanism of many NIMBY movements. The NIMBY syndrome has forced the people involved in the development process to evaluate their own moral and ethical stand on issues impacting a neighborhood. An improvised and democratic process that distributes the impact of projects such that no single community needs to bear the burden of development is in the best interest of all stakeholders.
- People Empowerment: At some level, if there’s a constructive approach by the NIMBYists, there is a possibility of informed decision-making and increased awareness about the development of facilities thereby, reducing community tensions and eliminating unfounded anxieties among some neighborhood residents. The resulting unification of the neighborhood will ensure that no developer can just sneak in and start work on the contentious development. At the same time, instead of shelving a potentially beneficial project entirely, there can be participative action. Community organizations can improve upon their efforts to provide services that ensure safety and enhance the overall quality of life of all the residents and workers in these neighborhoods, instead of surrendering to social rejection. NIMBYism often finds some common ground with environmental activism resulting in the redistribution of environmental burden.
- Examples of Projects: Several projects have been temporarily or permanently shelved due to NIMBY protests. Most notably in the year 2011, President Obama was pushed to postpone the Keystone XL pipeline that would have brought crude from Canadian oil sands development across the Midwest. The NIMBYists were the ordinary people of Nebraska, where the pipeline would have crossed, who worried less about climate change than about the risk of a local spill. In addition, NIMBYs protesting the site of hazardous wastes, hydraulic fracturing (rumored to trigger earthquakes in Oklahoma) have met with small victories. In the United Kingdom, NIMBY reactions to proposed windfarms continue to spark heated political debates. In Germany, residents and policymakers who’re forever skeptical about nuclear energy are now protesting the construction of nuclear plants belonging to neighboring countries like Poland in areas close to the German border.
Cons of NIMBYism
- Alienation of Pro-growth Parties: The ugly form of NIMBYism retards social growth and threatens the social fabric of the neighborhood by dividing it into groups that are pro-development and those that oppose development.
- Ignoring the Greater Good: NIMBYists often avoid making personal sacrifices even if the development is clearly for the larger good of society with no real hazardous implications to the neighborhood. For example, affordable housing projects are famously NIMBY scapegoats. Residents oppose these projects due to fears of property devaluation in their “upscale” neighborhood. Whether this is a snobbish, almost selfish response and even discriminatory at some level, is debatable! These self-protectionist tendencies also adversely affect the resident diversity of the neighborhood.
- Financial Implications: Often NIMBYism results in lengthy and hostile public right disputes and hinders consolidated plan implementation. This leads to increased financial costs, project delays or even denial of services for those who need it desperately.
- Promoting Stereotypes: The NIMBY syndrome being a widespread phenomenon, inevitably perpetuates wrong ideologies and myths and influences the attitudes of the general public such that it contributes to marginalizing the vulnerable and minority communities. For example, anti-immigrant/anti-minority attitudes and practices are often at the core of NIMBY movements. Another set of projects that are victims of NIMBY movements are renewable energy programs. Windfarms are often opposed for reasons of landscape devaluation while neglecting energy security and climate change issues.
- Social Bane: The propagated myths and stereotypes and the ensuing mass hysteria often drive the anti-development sentiment of the NIMBYs. This kind of unreasonable opposition often halts the dialog and community outreach process. This dark side of NIMBYism has fueled the rise of social evils such as environmental racism and social degradation due to NIMBY projects being developed at sites of least resistance affecting those with less social and economic clout.
- Examples of Projects: According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, NIMBY resistance to new energy infrastructure prevents about 45% of renewable energy proposals from being built across the United States. Despite evidence about the safety of windfarm operations, NIMBY attitudes ensure that only 33% windfarms get approved locally in England.
Proposed NIMBY projects often represent risks of a public nature, either perceived or real. However, NIMBYism has all the symptoms of turning into a social evil if it is resorted to in an irrational, unethical and discriminatory fashion. The fact that not all project sponsors symbolize righteousness warranting a sentiment of good faith, does not help either. The NIMBY syndrome is not all black or white. And as with all shades of gray, it’s all about balance.