How NIMBYs made ‘back yard’ mean ‘entire neighborhood’

What part of a city or community makes up somebody’s ‘back yard’? NIMBYs think it’s the whole thing.

(This is the fourth installment of the Nashville PRIDE’s exploration of the debate between NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard)

The nefarious NIMBY is one of the stock characters in today’s urban crisis. The local opposition that rises up to protest neighborhood change has become one of the familiar obstacles for ambitious planners and builders alike. Consequently, some urban reformers have argued that we need to flip the NIMBY’s negative ‘N’ into a more enthusiastic stance towards development, joining together in so-called ‘YIMBY’ movements that seek to clear the way for faster, bigger, and less stringently regulated urban change.

And yet simply swapping the ‘N’ for a ‘Y’ runs the risk of depoliticizing substantive, conflicting questions about who gets to decide how cities transform. Instead, the part of the NIMBY acronym that deserves the most scrutiny is the part which represents geographic small-mindedness: the ‘BY.’

NIMBY stands for ‘not in my back yard,’ and every once in a while, NIMBY sentiment is in fact directed against a project that’s literally going to impact someone’s back yard—maybe a widened sidewalk or a buried utility line. Much more often, however, the ‘BY’ in NIMBY is metaphorical. The people who take part in NIMBY protests are usually objecting to something that will happen nearby them, in a wider area of their day-to-day life that constitutes an imaginary ‘back yard.’

But how, exactly, do we define the geographical limits of the area that someone cares about? In other words, how do we know what part of a city makes up someone’s ‘back yard’? Even in the sentence I offered in the opening paragraph (“local opposition which rises up to protest neighborhood change”), I used a descriptive sleight-of-hand. What, after all, is local? What defines a neighborhood?

The question is important to consider if we want to balance two competing principles in managing how cities, communities, and regions undergo physical and social change. On the one hand, from both an ethical and a political standpoint, the people who are most affected by a change are the ones who ought to have the most say in determining whether and how that change takes place. Geographically speaking, usually the people who are most affected by something are the ones who are closest to it. This is the principle of community self-determination, and it forms the basis of movements ranging from anti-imperialism to indigenous rights campaigns and block-level organizing.

Simply swapping the ‘N’ for a ‘Y’ runs the risk of depoliticizing substantive, conflicting questions about who gets to decide how cities transform.

On the other hand, sometimes achieving just and equitable goals for a larger community may require overruling the objections of a smaller, but more vocally organized, constituent community. To take one pointed example, a metropolitan region ought to have affordable housing for needy families that is both plentiful and evenly distributed throughout different neighborhoods. But privileged communities often use concerns about traffic, environmental protection, and pressure on local schools to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods. The residents of well-off neighborhoods rely on the cheap labor of housekeepers, nannies, delivery drivers, and so on, and they probably agree that these people need somewhere to live—just so long as it’s not in their own ‘back yard.’

And if there’s something that truly nobody wants next to them, some project for which every single community is NIMBY (a toxic-waste dump would be the classic example) then the project usually just ends up getting placed in whichever community which has the weakest ability to say ‘no.’ That’s why lower-income people and people of color are much more likely to live nearby to environmental hazards. There are many cases, then, where it would be good to empower marginalized communities with more NIMBY power, not less.

The trick, then, is to figure out how to scale the geographic limits of representation and decision making so that they appropriately and fairly match with the geographic area of both the advantages and the burdens that are associated with any kind of change.