Monday, March 14, 2016


NIMBY = "Not In My Back Yard"

For many proponents of policies that emphasize traffic safety over car throughput, sustainable development over urban sprawl, and economic vitality over parking availability, time and again efforts to create progressive movement are stymied by objections rooted in a consistent ideology. And that ideology appears to be rooted in a fear of change and old, rigid thinking.

So what are good progressives to do? Well, we label the objections and group them together, of course! And thus the "NIMBY" is born.

We progressives like to think we're very smart (which isn't to say that we aren't). We read books on urban planning, celebrate every patch of green paint we get on a bike lane, make a big deal about moving around on our own two feet, and shake our fists at the proverbial powers that be that constantly thwart LA's ability (and pretty much every city's, really) to reach our goal of a progressive panacea.

Here's the thing: The NIMBYs do have a point.

By labeling people with whom we disagree as being "other", we disengage from them and subsequently fail to see in them the same passion and commitment to the things that make our community special. In this, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn, to adapt, and, ultimately, to succeed. We may have different values and thus value different aspects of our community, but that does not diminish the perspectives that we bring to bear.

Thus it is that I loathe the terms NIMBY, BANANA ("Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone"), CAVE people ("Citizens Against Virtually Everything"), or any derivation thereof. Same as I loathe being labeled by many of these same people as an "academic" or as "unrealistic" because I actually enjoy walking to many destinations and spending my daily transit commute reading books to learn lessons that I might subsequently apply in my neighborhood activism.

The person who is worried that a reduction in car travel lanes could impact their commute has a point.
The person who fears for her life every time she just tries to cross the street has a point.
The person who is concerned that a dense housing development will impact the availability of on-street parking has a point.
The person who sees an unfair allocation of limited public street space that is prioritized for drivers over all other users has a point.

This is not to say that I do not have a point of view that I wish to see implemented. It is to say, however, that I am also only one person in a neighborhood of 36,000 people, in a city of 3.9 million people. None of these people will agree on everything, and it's challenging to get a majority to agree on any one thing.


I was raised in a home where we regularly took public transit at an early age (in a city bereft of decent public transit, no less). I learned to ride and often rode my bike along terrible sidewalks with cars racing past me at 40+ MPH (and yet sometimes I could still bike to my destinations as fast or faster than the people driving :-). My family regularly walked to church, to get groceries, and to see friends, even if the walk added an hour onto the round trip or was in the dead of our Midwestern winters. Somehow, growing up in the "Motor City," I got about as non-car a childhood as possible, all while appreciating the opportunities that car ownership does offer. All of these things inform the man that I am today.

Thus it is that I rarely agree with the "NIMBY" perspective. Not because it's wrong, though, but because I just see the world differently. I have different priorities.

For instance, it is a fact that, in the city of LA, about 100 people die every year in traffic collisions for the crime of walking in our city. For me that's a galling statistic that should horrify every sentient resident of our fair city. For others, though, that statistic is simply an unfortunate reality of being in a city of almost 4 millions residents all going about their business every day. I am galled in part because every day I set out on foot for various trips. Others are less unnerved because their primary means of movement is their cars, which could be inconvenienced to some degree by measures intended to help others be safe. These others also hear a focus on people walking and don't see how changes to serve these people also benefit people driving.

Where we go wrong in this discussion is when progressive advocates use stats like this as a battering ram, as if identifying a problem is good enough reason to pursue their approach to solving it. For the NIMBY, this becomes a lecture, as if they're being accused of not caring about the unfortunate plight of their fellow Angelenos, as if they'd ever hit and kill someone else with their cars. And by subsequently labeling opposition to our efforts to make streets safer as being "NIMBY," we progressives only undermine our ability to effect change.


Here's what I propose:
Listen to each other. Understand what motivates each other to act and what priorities we have. And then, consider modifications to policy solutions that seek to address the concerns of as many in the room as possible while still prevailing upon the best progressive methods to address our intrinsic challenges.

A more frequently occurring example of this approach can be found in the notion of "Tactical Urbanism," which involves temporary installments to test out ideas and see what does and does not work. We can see this on a large scale in New York's Times Square, where a temporary installation of some benches and planters subsequently led to a permanent change that has increased pedestrian space while improving traffic flows through central Manhattan.

Here in LA, we can see tactical urbanism on a small scale in LA's Silver Lake neighborhood, where a temporary installation of a plaza at Griffith Park and Sunset Blvds has become a favorite local spot, resulting in things like a summer outdoor movie series and improved outdoor seating for adjacent restaurants. This kind of temporary change is now also being tried out for a street redesign of a one-mile stretch of Venice Blvd in Mar Vista, where the city is giving the idea a real-life test, rather than simply talking the issue to death.


So let's dispense with labels that undermine listening and collaboration. We're all people, invested to varying degrees in our community, with an array of responses to the shared challenges that we face. Let's listen more to each other, engage more with each other, and sustain majorities of people to support the changes that we need to ensure a safer, more sustainable, and economically viable future for our city, for ourselves, and for the generations of people that will follow in our footsteps.


  1. Good post, before starting grad school I saw a talk by a retired urban planner who reminded the fairly progressive audience that his definition of NIMBY was "Politically engaged neighborhood with a vested economic interest in the outcome of policies". I try to remind myself that when we talk about a Vision for the LA Metro Area, there are people who have a very clear vision. That they can walk from their front door to their car, and drive to a parking spot anywhere in the city within a 50-100 ft distance of the front door of their destination. This is the vision they bought from 1970-1990, and it is our challenge to have compassion when we know that vision is no longer a reality.

    1. That is absolutely the vision of many people. I am heartened to see more progressive people engaging in neighborhood activism. My concern is that it's still such an excruciating process that it'll turn off dedicated progressives and continue to attract mostly those - even in younger generations - who are primarily interested in standing in the way of progress. Failing to engage in the existing systems is not a good reason for progressives to fail at achieving our desired outcomes.

  2. I appreciate the intentions. But I think you leave out a bit of background why people are acting the way they are acting.
    By advocating that we all listen to each other, you assume that we can all find a solution together; and extrapolate that this is what we all want.
    This goes back to the foundation of liberalism, that we are all in this together, and we all can figure this out. I subscribe to this as well. So did Thomas Jefferson. So did John Locke, long time ago.
    But I doubt that all so called NIMBY's feel this way. Because there is also the worldview that unless the few tell the many what to do, the world will fall apart. This is where Hamilton came down, and Adams; and before them, Thomas Hobbes. And nimby's often think that they are part of the few who have the right, and that the many just need to go away and accept their place in life.
    NIMBY's don't accept that we need to find solutions for all; at least most of them don't. Which is why I call them GAMOs Go Away Mine Only people. You think it is only coincidence that they might be trump supporters?
    How do you speak with somebody who thinks they have better rights than you, because for whatever reason they belong to a group which is in their minds more entitled?

    1. Gerhard, your point is duly noted. In the post I said, "And then, consider modifications to policy solutions that seek to address the concerns of as many in the room as possible while still prevailing upon the best progressive methods to address our intrinsic challenges."

      It's entirely true that there are still plenty of people who will be unmoved by even the most collaborative, inclusive process. The argument in this post is intended to help us speak better to people who are on the margins - who are drawn to the "NIMBY" opposition by virtue of threats that they perceive to their quality of life but who are also open to persuasion.

      I've observed this phenomenon in practice. It does happen. But it is a challenge, for sure.