The Public Eye: Notes on NIMBYism

By Sharon Hudson
Tuesday August 08, 2006

Part I: To NIMBY, or Not to NIMBY? That is the Question 


I admit, I never thought I was at risk. But people I know are showing symptoms, and it’s spreading quickly, so I decided to get tested. I’m very nervous, though. I’m afraid I might test positive for being a NIMBY. 

Apparently I am a NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) if I don’t want a five-story building in my back yard. (Actually, as a renter I don’t have a back yard, and if Berkeley’s planners have their way, neither will anybody else, but that’s another story.) But what if I oppose the same building five or 10 blocks away, or down in Oakland? Then am I a NIMBY or an “anti-NIMBY”? How far does the metaphorical “back yard” extend? What if I just believe in good development, which in some places, both rural and urban, means no development?  

In 2003, the City Council considered charging a prohibitive development appeal fee to Berkeley residents who live “too far” (more than 300 feet) from a project. Is caring about land use decisions more than a block from one’s house a symptom? But if those who live next to a project are NIMBYs, and those who live farther away are crackpots and busybodies, who can challenge bad developments? Nobody—which is just what the fee advocates wanted. Fortunately, the council tabled the fee after public protest. City Hall has since moved on to more subtle and successful means of eliminating public participation. 

The smug intellectual version of calling somebody a NIMBY is to say they are “afraid of change.” This charge condescends toward those who are not “progressive” enough to embrace the name-caller’s version of the future, or “smart” enough to know what is good for them. But doesn’t almost everyone welcome “good” change and resist “bad” change? And, increasingly, bad changes and bad planning in Berkeley are starting to look like the status quo. So please, Doctor, am I afraid of change, or afraid of the status quo?  

In land use matters, unless we cooperate—which most neighbors favor but which most developers eschew—“change” means taking away Peter’s rights to benefit Paul. If Peter objects, Paul says that Peter is “afraid of change.” For example, before my time, another apartment building was built just south of mine. Its extra height cut off the winter solar heat to the south side of my building and tripled the winter energy bills for our south-facing units. This was (and still is) a direct financial subsidy by neighboring residents to the developer, and I’m sure the neighbors at the time were vociferously “afraid of change.” But if the City Council were to consider instating renters’ solar rights, who would be “afraid of change” then? Will this turn developers into NIMBYs? 

Some “smart growth” advocates admit that land use conflicts have nothing to do with “fear of change” and everything to do with gain and loss. Simply stated, bad development means developers gain and we lose. Then developers spend a fraction of their gains to convince well-intentioned Berkeleyans that bad development is smart growth. They also have some allies among some very “smart” people who are safely out of the development zone. I’m probably doomed to be a NIMBY if I am too dumb to realize that I will “gain” from the overdevelopment agenda. If only Berkeleyans were smart enough, we would realize that we really want to live in a place with more people, bigger buildings, and less greenery. But for some reason, we stay in a quiet town filled with large trees, small cottages, and old Victorians. Yes, we are a dumb lot indeed! 

It is important to a sustainable planet that most people live in fairly compact urban areas. Berkeley’s population density is higher than 90 percent of California’s cities, and three times that of the (equivocal) smart-growth poster-child, Portland, Ore. This means that Berkeley already enjoys something quite special: a remarkably pleasant environment at a relatively high density. The more honest “smart growth” advocates admit that adding density to Berkeley isn’t good for Berkeley. But they are willing to impose bad development upon us because it is good for the planet. These terra-NIMBYs are truly terrified of change—climate change. And who isn’t? Unfortunately, however, nothing we do in Berkeley’s land use will have any noticeable impact on climate change.  

Berkeley’s idealism is laudable, but sometimes misguided. Few people—idealists least of all—want to acknowledge that something as critical as global warming cannot be affected by personal self-sacrifice. Berkeley is already doing less damage than almost any other American city of equivalent size. Stuffing a few thousand extra residents into the upper floors of too-tall buildings, and depriving them of cars, will do no good for the planet, but it will do considerable harm to Berkeley. Injuring Berkeley to impact either urban sprawl or global warming is like cutting off your thumb to lose weight: It will have no impact on your weight problem, but it’s mighty detrimental to your hand. And it's permanent. Try it; you’ll see. 

But if those who are working so hard to remake Berkeley into their ideal were to spend equivalent time working for changes in federal and global environmental, population, economic, and science policies, it could make a huge difference. But that’s no fun. It’s fun to play around with little models, to get awards for being “green,” and to see your ego enshrined in architecture. That makes Berkeleyans feel good. Meanwhile, buying new SUVs will make about a billion Chinese feel fantastic. 

Finally, there are a handful of “smart growth” advocates in Berkeley who are true environmentalists. They value the California Environmental Quality Act and similar local protections like the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. They even believe in public participation. Although they realize that changes in Berkeley alone will be globally insignificant, they believe in Berkeley’s moral leadership and ability to change others by example. But it’s delusional to think that Berkeley’s example could save the planet from global warming, so let’s set our hubris aside and work a little closer to home. Let’s model a city in which people can live happily in relatively dense urban areas. Removing our existing strengths and pleasures, and emulating less attractive and livable cities, will not do this; it will do the opposite. 

In addition, with all due respect, few people rush to follow the “good example” of hypocrites. If you would not live in the buildings you advocate; if you own or drive a car, but want to make it difficult for others to do so; if you like your tree-lined or historic street, but believe others don’t need the same; if you want to live in peace and quiet, but to visit all-night bars and restaurants in other people’s neighborhoods—then you are a hypocrite. If you say you want people (especially other people) to live in high-density communities, but then do nothing to protect their quality of life, you are a hypocrite. If you obsess over affordable housing while ignoring population control, then perhaps you are more concerned with looking good than with doing good. 

In truth, I won’t mind testing positive. NIMBYs may not look good, but they do good. It is NIMBYs who fight to keep the urban environment livable. It is urban NIMBYs who struggle tirelessly against uncooperative developers and planners for good development. So Berkeley NIMBYs: stand up and be proud. And don’t forget to vote. 


Sharon Hudson is a 35-year Berkeley resident with a special interest in land use issues.