Thursday 5 May 2022

Nimbyism: who has the right to decide what happens in a local area?

A Nimby is a person who opposes new developments in their local area, an acronym of Not In My Back Yard. The term has certainly taken off in recent years with debates about the amount of housing being built in Western countries.

What I find interesting about Nimbyism is that a Nimby doesn’t have to be against housing per se, they may actually think it is a good idea for more housing to be built in society in general. What they are against, however, is housing being built near where they live. You can see where this situation ends up, a sort of tragedy of the commons. If everyone is a Nimby, then there are no back yards to build in, anywhere.

Nimbyism may come from a self-interested perspective: if you own a house in an area and more housing gets built, it could potentially lower your house price. And adding more people will mean more congestion on local roads and longer waiting times at the hospital, if no more infrastructure gets built. It could even be you just don’t like the look of new developments. The fact of the matter is, a lot of these new developments benefit other people and so it doesn’t take much to tip you over the edge into Nimbyism.

What would a Steelman case for Nimbyism be? I think there are actual reasons why you may want to be against certain things being built in your locality if you think it would have a negative impact - not just for those currently living in the area, but for future generations as well.

As a relatively recent resident of Durham I would like to say I now feel part of the city. But I am still aware that I haven’t been here all that long and I don’t know how long I will stay. Do I have the same vested interest in the city as someone whose family as lived here generations? I would like to think so, but it is not a straight-forward question to answer.

One of the most interesting documentaries I have seen in a while is Wild Wild Country on Netflix. The documentary is about an Indian Guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He moves to the US and buys some land for him and his many followers near the town of Antelope, Oregon, which has a population of about 50 people. Tensions rise between the locals and the new settlers. Eventually Rajnessh has enough followers in the area to outvote the locals to the extent of changing the name of the town from Antelope to Rajneesh. All sorts of weird things happen after that and its certainly worth a watch (if you have seen the “joy of sect” episode of the Simpsons, Rajnessh is who the cult leader was based on). But I think this documentary highlights an interesting facet about the morality of Nimbyism.

Does the fact that the local residents of Antelope, having been there for a long time, mean they have a greater right to have say in their locality? Or does Rajnessh and his followers have the right to be there and make changes to the town through democratic means?

Although this is an extreme example, I do think we have something to learn from thinking about who has the right to decide what happens in a local area. Taking a strong position either way can get you into difficulty. For example, some people are concerned that building new houses will create gentrification: rich people moving into poor neighbourhoods. But if you give more powers to local areas, it may lead to rich neighbourhoods preventing poor people from moving there. Gentrifstation, if you will.

So I think if we are going to solve a problem like, Nimbyism it will need to involve a larger discussion about the politics of the local.

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