Like many professions, planners have their own acronyms. This is about one of the more s controversial ones, further highlighted by COVID- 19.
NOT IN MY BACKYARD – this is the rallying cry for opposition to development, from zoning changes to proposed housing, roads and other similar projects. Required public hearings are necessary (and usually required) and good for citizens to know what is planned for their communities and to then have the opportunity express their concerns. But the nature of these hearings typically result in opponents showing up, and as as result some projects , having met the standards for approval or perhaps fulfilling a community need, are delayed or denied under the mantra – NOT IN MY BACKYARD.
An example helps, from my time as the Town Planning Director. An application was submitted to annex a 40 acre parcel into the town limits, proposing a small commercial center, affordable townhouses for the elderly and single -family houses. The site was adjacent to an existing single family neighborhood within the town.
The review process is long, ultimately requiring two public hearings, one before the Planning Commission and then before the Town Council, the approval authority. Within weeks of the formal submission of the application, fierce opposition surfaced, based on rumors that the proposed “affordable” townhouses for the elderly were really Section 8 Housing, a Federal sponsored low income housing program. I received numerous calls, not only for the adjacent residential home owners, but also other town residents, all outraged and opposed to the annexation. They didn’t want townhouses and “those kind of people”.
This illustrates the negative connotation of NIMBY, now exacerbated by COVID- 19 and the impact on housing affordability and inequality. This doesn’t mean that pubic vetting of projects is not needed, but for better pubic engagement and information.
The following two commentaries provide a good overview and the impact on housing and other community needs:
“This “win-win” approach to entitlement could overcome many of the formidable barriers to lowering cost and avoiding the divisive “NIMBY” battles, replacing them with something more like “QUIMBY” – Quality In My Back Yard. (A panel convened by Portland’s Metro planning authority made a similar recommendation in 2009.)”
“NIMBYs think and act in geographic units more suitable for the 18th century than the 21st.”
A footnote – the proposed annexation application was withdrawn and never filed a gain,
Counter reaction to NIMBY has been YIMBY, YES IN MY BACKYARD. This supports development and due process in the permitting/review process. At the extreme this movement never sees a development they don’t like.
Their primary causes are housing affordability and higher residential density – “upzoning” . A recent analysis of urban areas by the New York Times ( June 2019, Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot ) finds that”Townhomes, duplexes and apartments are effectively banned in many neighborhoods.” The example shows that Minneapolis zoning allows for 70% detached single family zoning.
There has been a national wide effort to change single-family zoning and allow denser housing, like duplexes, triplexes, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and apartment buildings. Upzoning legislation has been introduced or passed in California, Oregon, Washington, Seattle, Minneapolis, Nebraska, Virginia, and Maryland. The federal government has also expressed interest in pressing local governments to relax zoning laws that prohibit multi-family housing.
Will upzoning neighborhoods make homes more affordable? provides additional perspective and history of discriminatory zoning and housing in the US. COVID -19 has heightened the long history of zoning discrimination.
Why’s everyone talking about upzoning? It’s the foundation of green, equitable cities was originally written in June 2019, but re-posted July 7, 2020 because of the continuing discussion nation wide about affordable housing and recent up-zoning in a number of states (listed earlier) and cities, including Minneapolis.
The article has the following critical points why we should change how we zone our communities:
…zoning literally is everyday life, because it governs what goes where. And it’s circumstantial to affordability, equality, equity, and the distribution of goods, services, and wealth
…the enshrining of single-family homes is increasingly at odds with the realities of 2019 and beyond.
In the United States, we used the precedent set by Euclid v. Ambler—that separating buildings based on what they’re used for is both legal and preferred—to justify the use of zoning and other legal mechanisms, like covenants, to spatially separate people from each other on the basis of race.
That zoning’s application has legally enshrined deep and persistent racial exclusion in America is not up for dispute. Fortunately, we are working toward an increased national understanding that excluding anything but single-family homes is a proxy for excluding other people.