Column: The Public Eye: Notes on NIMBYism Part IV: The NIMBY Manifesto

By Sharon Hudson
Tuesday August 22, 2006

In 1990, 60 percent of New Yorkers said they would live somewhere else if they could, and in 2000, 70 percent of urbanites in Britain felt the same way. Many suburbanites commute hours every day just to have “a home, a bit of private space, and fresh air.” But unfortunately, running off to suburbia or to the wilderness to find contentment is becoming environmentally and economically unviable.  

We must draw people back into relatively compact urban areas. Showcase cities that have managed to attract would-be suburbanites into increased core densities have done so through neighborhood revitalization and by giving priority to quality of life, not density. This is the opposite of what Berkeley is doing.  

Berkeley is making three serious mistakes. First, we are deliberately and unnecessarily increasing income-based inequities in quality of life. Second, we are moving toward an urban environment where man is disconnected from (his) nature. And third, we are creating an urban environment that undermines our cultural values and individual potentialities.  

First, as discussed in Part II of this series (“Density, Equity, and the Urban NIMBY,” Aug. 11), we should not continue to enshrine poor and unequal quality of life in our land use policies and zoning decisions. Livability standards are most important, but least applied and enforced, in high-density areas. Renters and other high-density residents are expected to do without adequate living space, greenspace, quiet, and cars; and without cars, they lack the freedom, pleasure, and mobility taken for granted by average Americans. This is ethically unacceptable. 

Second, our urban rights must include the right to a “minimum daily requirement” of nature, as discussed in Part III of this series (“A NIMBY Confronts Environmental Dualism,” Aug. 15). Most urban poor never leave the ghetto; most car-free Manhattanites rarely leave New York City. The only nature they experience has to be in their own neighborhoods. Good urban design creates space to experience a diversity of nature on a daily basis.  

Finally, we need to design urban spaces to enhance quality of life, cultural richness, and personal fulfillment. The Centers for Disease Control defines quality of life as “an overall sense of well-being . . . including] all aspects of community life that [influence] the physical and mental health of its members.” The World Health Organization states that “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being . . .” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adds: “Everyone . . . has the right to . . . the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”  

What kinds of spaces are required to express our dignity and personality? Americans, Californians, and Berkeleyans must examine our own values and decide which ones to make space for. We cannot take land use examples from other cultures. Berkeleyans are not Parisians, nor Brazilians, nor even New Yorkers. I once asked a friend from Hong Kong what he did outside of work. He said: “Nothing, really. In Hong Kong we didn’t have any room for hobbies. I don’t know how to do anything or build anything. All I know how to do is go to work.” Lack of space for personal development makes Hong Kong a capitalist dream but a cultural wasteland. American values are different. We like private space for hobbies and recreation, and if the city doesn’t provide it, Americans will simply continue their urban exodus.  

We cannot let planners and developers decide what we will do with our lives. I never hear planners discussing psychological health and cultural values. Planners have a different approach. As one Berkeley planner told me, no matter what they build, eventually those who can or must tolerate the new, worse environment will replace those who can’t. As this happens, resistance to further degradation lessens. But I reject this “race to the bottom.” And with enough time, planners and developers could also train Americans to live like drones in anthills—but why let them?  

The reason Berkeley is making these three mistakes is that we have fallen under the control of developers and extremists, instead of implementing real smart growth. Accepted smart growth urban infill guidelines recommend more open space, more parking, smaller buildings, and greater housing variety than is called for by Berkeley’s current plans, codes, decision makers, false “smart growth” advocates, and, of course, developers. Real smart growth approximates what most of Berkeley looks like right now—two-story single-family homes with small yards, two- and three-story multi-unit buildings, somewhat taller buildings in mixed-use areas, plenty of greenery, adequate but not excessive parking, and attractive, walkable downtowns based largely on the preservation of historic buildings. This is what makes urban living humane, attractive, healthy, and sustainable. And it’s exactly what most Berkeley NIMBYs support.  

Human beings can survive in environments of unbelievable degradation. People can adapt to horrors so well that they soon fail to perceive them as horrible. Thus it is important to remind ourselves of what is good before we become too accustomed to what is bad. 

Simply stated, urban residents have a civil right to good quality of life. So I now propose an “Urban Bill of Rights,” a.k.a “The NIMBY Manifesto.”  


The Urban Bill of Rights 

1. The right to see significant greenery, the sky, and the sun from within one’s home. 

2. The right to natural cross ventilation in one’s home. 

3. The right to enjoy peace and quiet within one’s home with windows open. 

4. The right to sleep at night without excessive artificial ambient light. 

5. The right to be free in one’s neighborhood from pollution of air, water, soil, and plant life. 

6. The right to be free from undesirable local environmental change caused by poor urban design, such as wind, shadow and noise canyons, excess heat caused by overpaving, etc. 

7. The right to adequate space for storage, hobbies, and other personal activities in and around each dwelling unit, including play space for children in family housing. 

8. The right to mobility, regardless of income. If automobile use is discouraged by prohibitive pricing, public transit must be adequate and low cost.  

9. The right to parking space for each household. 

10. The right of convenient access, on foot if possible, to basic daily needs, such as good quality food at reasonable prices, daily household and medical supplies, laundry facilities, etc. 

11. The right of convenient access, by foot, private vehicle, or transit, to places of employment. 

12. The right of equal access to the commons and to taxpayer-funded and other public facilities, such as government buildings, libraries, museums, bridges, and roadways. 

13. The right of access within walking distance to nature, recreation, outdoor exercise, and discovery, including parks, open space, and areas inhabited by wildlife. 

14. The right to equal and adequate police, fire, and emergency services, which shall not be infringed on the basis of income or neighborhood character. 

15. The right to participate in and guide, through equitable, representative, democratic processes, land use decisions that affect oneself, one’s neighborhood, and one’s community. 


This list can be refined through public discussion. Once accepted, urban rights would be delimited by the courts just like our other rights. Many of them are inexpensive and easy to implement, and all should be goals of good urban planning. I challenge our planning staff, land use and housing commissions, city council, and organizations pretending to advocate “livability” in Berkeley to think about these ideas in all their housing and land use decisions.