This column was drafted as an entry in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Science & Technology Communication, edited by Susanna Hornig Priest. The encyclopedia will be published (eventually) by SAGE Publications, Inc., and will presumably include this entry, though there may well be editorial changes between now and then. Copyright SAGE Publications, Inc. Requests for re-use or reprints should be directed to SAGE Publications.
NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – is an acronym describing opposition to something newly proposed for the neighborhood of the opponent. Synonyms include NIMBYism and the NIMBY syndrome. The opponents themselves are often referred to as NIMBYs, less often as NIMBYists.
Print use of NIMBY dates back only to 1980, when the term appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. By then it was already in widespread use at angry public meetings.
The word NIMBY is intrinsically pejorative, keeping company with adjectives like irrational and selfish. Only proponents of a development refer to its opponents as NIMBYs. (This article, however, will use the term without the pejorative subtext.)
Good for the World, Bad for the Neighborhood
The purest, most literal example of the NIMBY attitude is opposition to something that virtually everyone (including the opponents) agrees ought to be built somewhere, but virtually everyone would prefer not to live near. Examples include airports, jazz clubs, superhighways, slaughterhouses, prisons, and wind farms. These are all developments that offer significant benefits to the overall community at the expense of their nearest neighbors. They bring with them noise, odor, pollution, traffic, crime, or other undesirable side-effects. Opposing them is certainly not irrational, though it is demonstrably selfish (that is, rationally self-interested).
Rutgers University Planning Professor Frank J. Popper coined the term LULU (Locally Unwanted Land Use) to refer to developments of this sort. His 1981 article on “Siting LULUs,” published in the journal Planning, had a major influence on planning professionals. Unlike NIMBY, LULU isn’t pejorative; the term captures the reality that some projects are genuinely good for the world but bad for the neighborhood. That’s probably why it didn’t catch on the way NIMBY did. In the contentious environment of siting controversies, there wasn’t much demand for a neutral term.
Developments that are good for the world but bad for the neighborhood tend to get built in the end. The big question is how and where such developments are sited. Among the options:
- Oppression. In the normal course of events, LULUs end up in neighborhoods too weak to oppose them successfully. That usually means poor neighborhoods, and often means minority neighborhoods. The environmental justice movement is thus inextricably tied to the NIMBY concept. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published a landmark study entitled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” concluding that race even more than income determined what communities ended up with hazardous waste sites. Few would argue that the leaky and poorly regulated hazwaste facilities of the past were “good for the world,” but they were surely bad for the neighborhood – and they tended to wind up in predictable neighborhoods.
- Market mechanisms. A variety of market mechanisms have been devised as possible replacements for oppression. A “reverse Dutch auction,” for example, requires the siting authority to “buy” the site from whichever community offers the lowest “selling price.” Market siting is voluntary by definition; communities that don’t bid are assured of not getting the development. Like oppression, market mechanisms usually end up putting LULUs in neighborhoods with desperate needs, simply because their price is likely to be lower than the price of affluent neighborhoods. But at least they are paid their price.
- Greenfields development. Since rich neighborhoods have the power and poor neighborhoods have the moral high ground, siting authorities sometimes try to put LULUs in nobody’s neighborhood. That doesn’t usually work very well either. For one thing, greenfields are increasingly hard to find, especially if the development in question needs to be near population centers and infrastructure. And crapping up pristine territory is hardly the ideal solution. Nor is it guaranteed to succeed; in many places the constituency for protecting untouched land is nearly as powerful as the constituency for protecting affluent neighborhoods.
- LULU tradeoffs. People who have thought hard about siting often wind up proposing some sort of scheme to balance which neighborhoods get which LULUs. If you accept the airport, you get a pass on the power plant and the prison. Some have described elaborate point systems, grounded in empirical data on how undesirable people say various LULUs actually are. Neighborhoods that exceed the point quota are out of the running for new LULUs (perhaps even if they want one – thus preventing poor neighborhoods from selling their quality-of-life the same way we prevent poor people from selling their organs). Neighborhoods below the quota are vulnerable.
It’s not that hard to come up with a combo that makes sense: LULU tradeoffs to determine which neighborhoods are fair game; a market mechanism to choose among the neighborhoods that are below the point quota; a special dispensation to keep pristine land pristine. But nobody has come up with a way to turn such ideas into public policy. The dominant LULU siting strategy today is still oppression: coercing the weak.
Oppression isn’t working as well these days as it once worked; the weak are less weak than they used to be. One result, for better or worse (or both), is that many LULUs languish without a site for decades. This may offer reason to hope that a better way – better for the world and for the neighborhood – will eventually replace oppression as the siting strategy of choice.
Bad for Everybody
Often opponents of a controversial development have objections that go beyond Not In My Back Yard. Opposition to nuclear power plants and hazardous waste incinerators, for example, is grounded in the view that these technologies are fundamentally flawed, that they should be abandoned altogether. Some have tried to popularize the acronym NIABY (Not In Anybody’s Back Yard) to emphasize that they are not simply NIMBYs.
There’s nothing disreputable about the straightforward NIMBY position. Neighborhoods are entitled to try to protect themselves from becoming unwilling National Sacrifice Areas for the benefit of others. But stopping developments that one considers bad for the world as well as the neighborhood is a different and higher priority. Calling NIABYs NIMBYs isn’t just insulting. It’s inaccurate as well.
Often the two impulses are merged. National and international organizations that are opposed to putting X anywhere help organize neighbors who are opposed to putting it here. The locals learn the global principles; some come to believe them fervently, while others parrot them for tactical reasons.
Both NIMBY and NIABY, by the way, are politically diverse phenomena. Opponents of casinos and abortion clinics express the same mix of local dismay and global disapproval as opponents of power plants and incinerators. In fact, most of the environment-focused literature on NIMBY and related phenomena dates back to the 1990s or earlier; the literature from the 2000s is primarily about the difficulty of siting low-income apartment developments, psychiatric halfway houses, and the like.
Like LULU, NIABY hasn’t caught on because it isn’t pejorative. But there’s a pejorative exaggeration of NIABY that has gained currency among developers: BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody).
Between NIMBY (I approve of X in principle but I don’t want it here) and NIABY (I disapprove of X anywhere) are a range of motives without acronyms. Some of the important ones:
- I disapprove of something else that will be facilitated by X. Opponents of nuclear power, for example, have wisely opposed Nevada’s radioactive waste repository. If there’s no place to put the waste, it’ll be harder to site new plants, and maybe even to keep existing ones open. This position is likely to masquerade as, and merge with, NIABY. Opponents of a radwaste repository don’t have to say whether they oppose it for its own sake, as a stand-in for nuclear power, or both.
- I disapprove of the particulars of this version of X. A good one might be okay, but you’re cutting corners, building a sloppy one. NIMBYs and NIABYs alike point out defects in the particulars of the proposal at hand. They often fail to stop it but succeed in remedying some of its defects, thus making it a whole lot better and safer. That may have been their goal in the first place, or it may be a fallback position, or they may see it simply as defeat.
- I disapprove of how many X’s you’re building and how hurriedly you’re building them. We may need some X’s eventually, but you haven’t exhausted Y and Z yet, and they should come first. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, opponents of landfills advanced a variety of NIMBY and NIABY arguments. But their strongest argument in hindsight was the value of source reduction and recycling as ways of reducing waste and thus landfill demand. By stopping landfill after landfill, they bought time for better solutions (not to mention better landfills).
- I disapprove of where you chose to put your X. You simply shouldn’t put a nuclear plant in an earthquake zone, or a hog farm near a residential neighborhood. NIMBYs invariably make this claim: It’s not that it’s my neighborhood; it’s just the wrong neighborhood. And coercive siting, as opposed to market siting, justifies the claim. When a siting authority spends years evolving elaborate criteria for finding the very best location to put an X, and finally chooses my back yard, it gives me both ammunition and motivation to claim that the criteria were wrongly chosen, or that they were wrongly weighted, or that they were wrongly applied ... and someplace else is actually the best location.
- I disapprove of your process. You’re telling when you should be asking.
The last bullet point – process – needs elaborating. Imagine pulling into your driveway after a long day’s work and noticing that there are strangers picnicking in your back yard. “Get out of my back yard!” you demand. “Why?” they inquire. “We’ve done a site analysis. Your back yard is a prime location for our picnic. And we’ve done a risk assessment. Our picnic is unlikely to do any significant permanent damage to your back yard.” They didn’t ask your permission; they didn’t invite you to the picnic; they won’t even tell you exactly what they’re eating. Odds are you’re pretty steamed. Even if they’re right about the substantive issues, even if you realize the risk to your back yard is actually minimal, you’re still pretty steamed.
Of course in this example it’s literally your back yard. You have a legal right to forbid trespassing on your property. The principle is slightly different when it’s not quite your back yard; it’s the developer’s property but your neighborhood, your community. But the feeling of being invaded by outsiders is much the same.
This is the key legitimacy battleground that underlies many NIMBY controversies. Should my newly acquired land in your community be seen as my land or as your community? How should we reconcile my right to do what I want with my land against your right, collectively with your neighbors, to control the future of your community? There’s a long tradition of balancing the two. Zoning laws, for example, apportion rights in both directions. And the process is intentionally and appropriately political. When people fight a political fight to stop something they don’t want in their neighborhood, they’re in the best democratic tradition – whether it’s a hazardous waste dump or an abortion clinic that they’re opposing. But they’re not always supposed to win either; democracies do sometimes exercise coercion.
Still, the best response to process objections is voluntary siting.
Rights, Substance, and Outrage
In any siting controversy, three conflicting rights are at stake: the right of developers to do what they want with their land; the right of neighborhoods to control what developers do in their neighborhood; and the right of the larger community (city, state, country) to constrain the neighborhoods’ control, to coerce the neighborhoods for the greater good.
This conflict takes place in the context of substantive disagreement over whether the development in question is wise or unwise – whether it’s good or bad for the neighborhood and whether it’s good or bad for the larger community.
And it takes place in the context of outrage. Quite apart from the rights of the parties and the wisdom of the development, coercive siting arouses more outrage than voluntary siting. Similarly, unfair siting arouses more outrage than fair siting. A market mechanism is both more voluntary and fairer than oppression – but even a coercive process can at least be made fairer by compensating the victims of the coercion for the burdens they are being forced to bear.
A variety of other outrage factors (control, trust, dread, responsiveness, etc.) also influence the likelihood and strength of the NIMBY response.
In most cases, in fact, neighborhood opposition to LULUs – that is, NIMBY – is fueled chiefly by outrage. When outrage is high, neighborhood opponents are driven to assert their rights. They bolster their assertion of rights by claiming that the development in question is substantively unwise, that it is bad for the neighborhood and/or bad for the world. These substantive claims may be correct or mistaken – or they may be grounded more in opinions and values than in science, and so “correct” and “mistaken” may be the wrong categories. But whether the substantive arguments local opponents deploy are strong or weak, their urge to fight results more from outrage than from substance.
Those who seek to stop a development they consider substantively unwise should therefore try to manage local outrage upward, thus triggering a more vigorous NIMBY response. Those who seek to consummate a development they consider substantively sound should try to manage local outrage downward, thus muting the NIMBY response. A smart opponent underlines how arrogant, unaccountable, and sleazy the developer is; a smart developer works to be humble, accountable, and honest.
When it comes to NIMBY, rights are usually divided. Substance is usually debatable. Outrage is usually dispositive.
Lesbirel, S. Hayden, and Daigee Shaw (eds.), Managing Conflict in Facility Siting (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005). A compilation of fairly recent articles by many of the authors who have been writing about NIMBY and facility siting for decades.
Popper, Frank J., “Siting LULUs,” Planning, April 1981. Online at http://www.planning.org/25anniversary/planning/1981apr.htm. A brief and influential overview of siting controversies.
Popper, Frank J., “The Great LULU Trading Game,” Planning, May 1992. Proposes a point system for more equitable distribution of locally unwanted land uses.
Sandman, Peter M., “Getting to Maybe: Some Communications Aspects of Siting Hazardous Waste Facilities,” Seton Hall Legislative Journal, v. 9, 1986, pp. 437–465. Reprinted in Robert W. Lake (ed.), Resolving Locational Conflict (New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, 1987), pp. 324–344. Reprinted in Theodore S. Glickman and Michael Gough (eds.), Readings on Risk (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1990), pp. 233–245. Online at http://www.psandman.com/articles/seton.htm. The author’s early attempt to apply the principles of risk communication to the siting of hazardous waste facilities.
Sandman, Peter M., “Siting Controversial Facilities: Some Principles, Paradoxes, and Heresies,” Consensus, July 1992, p. 2. Online at http://www.psandman.com/articles/siting.htm. A brief summary of the author’s recommendations on how to cope with NIMBY.
Copyright © 2008 by Peter M. Sandman