By Melissa McCullough (@MelissaMcCull20)

How do you spot the wily NIMBY (Not In My BackYard person), camouflaged as they try to be amongst true environmentalists and neighborhood protectors? How do you identify them when they leave their habitats of leafy single-family neighborhoods and emerge to emit their calls in the open at town council meetings and public forums? In appearance, they are similar to surrounding populations, albeit often older. Like the mockingbird, they can copy the calls of non-NIMBYs ( “save trees!”) or even YIMBYs (Yes In My BackYard’ers) (“we don’t need more ‘luxury’ apartments”). To accurately identify a NIMBY you must watch them and their behavior.

  • Do they say they support a solution (affordable housing, transit, density, mixed use development, etc) yet fail to support the projects meeting those needs? 
  • Are there aspects of the projects they fight that are selfish (e.g. if there is going to be affordable housing near them, they don’t want any road or trail connections into their neighborhoods or they fight projects based on “neighborhood protection” and the neighborhood they are protecting is their well-to-do single family one?
  • Does it come down to “might it affect my property value, which should only go up?” or a personal preference for only short buildings?  
  • Do they actually understand the issues, or are they ignorant of the intersectionality of an issue?
  • Do they use disingenuous objections (e.g. “you can’t put a tall building here because it will exacerbate flooding,” ignoring or incognizant that the only thing that matters for stormwater runoff is impervious footprint?)

What IS the “intersectionality” of community sustainability and climate change? 

By the late 1960s, environmental problems were big and obvious: deaths in Donora, PA from air pollution trapped in a valley, horrific oil spills on the beaches of California, and paradoxically, the Cuyahoga River catching fire near Cleveland. Similarly, environmental solutions today are not the obvious “stop dumping chemicals in the river” or ”put controls on the smokestack” solutions of decades ago. First we dealt with the obvious; then the insidious, multi-source, invisible problems grew. These problems have both causes and effects that interact and cascade (that’s the “intersectionality”). The worst of these problems is climate change, and its origins and solutions are multi-faceted and may sometimes seem counterintuitive or unrelated. As we battle these issues, the NIMBY has become a significant impediment to important actions at the local level, and the local level is a source of a significant fraction of the greenhouse gasses (GHG) that cause climate change.

The largest single contributor to climate change now, is transportation, which is driven by land use patterns.  As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has pointed out, “[k]ey urban form drivers of GHG emissions are density, land use mix, connectivity, and accessibility. These factors are interrelated and interdependent. As such, none of them in isolation are sufficient for lower emissions.”  This is largely about sprawl, and the loss of vast amounts of forest and farmland destroyed to make suburbs and beyond, acre upon acre of big box stores and vast parking lots, and other problematic development patterns.

Problematic development patterns are those that: are too diffuse to support good transit systems; cost cities more to build and maintain infrastructure than dense areas; create health-threatening urban heat islands, and; overall, make modern life centered around cars rather than people. And these decisions are made by local governments.

Our local solutions need to create:

  • Denser development patterns to increase local housing (to cut down on commutes), support workable transit systems and create less impervious surface area per person.
  • A mix of land uses to make daily needs accessible by active transportation or transit, enabling less use of cars.
  • More accessible public green space like greenways, parks and plazas, for residents mental and physical health, connectivity of destinations and support of local bird and pollinator populations.
  • A robust transit system and safe, comfortable connected ways for residents to safely and comfortably walk, bike and roll to a diverse array of daily needs and recreation.
  • Equitable access to all these things by those who have been disproportionately impacted by the discriminatory practices of the past.

The IPCC also pointed out that “[s]patial planning and  TOD (transit-oriented development) can yield other positive side-effects that may enhance a city’s liveability.” These kinds of changes will:

  • lessen the urban heat island effect with more shade trees and less asphalt/concrete
  • cut stormwater runoff with less impervious surface per person,
  • Improve air quality with more street and park trees to filter pollution, and less vehicle pollution,
  • Improve human health due to walking and biking for transportation, access and exposure to green space and better air quality,
  • Improve local economies with more vibrant local businesses, as walking and biking leads to more local spending, and
  • Result in lower infrastructure costs per person, sprawl doesn’t pay for itself in the long term.

Conclusion

In short, local governments and citizens need to identify and analyze NIMBY input for accuracy and relevance to the topic at hand. Then, they should make decisions for a vibrant and resilient future, based on full and accurate information taking into account the entire community’s social, economic, environmental and resilience needs. Our towns will be all the better for it.


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