What Is Not In My Backyard Syndrome, and Why Is It a Problem in America?

FT Contributor  | 

The acronym “NIMBY” stands for “not in my backyard.” The phrase — also known as NIMBY syndrome or the NIMBY phenomenon — is used in reference to citizens or residents of geographic areas who resist new construction projects or developments.

While this can take the form of a reasonable objection, NIMBYs have also been known to oppose potential projects to an unreasonable extent. For instance, often the reasoning for their resistance boils down to the proximity of the project to their current dwelling, whereas if the construction were to take place at a greater distance from their home, they would raise no objections.

Who Is a NIMBY?

NIMBYs are often individuals who are more vocal in local government. They prioritize voting in local elections and are more likely to fully participate in the election process and have a vested interest in local government.

While a NIMBY can be any citizen objecting against a public project in their vicinity, research has indicated that there are a few trends and traits that characterize the ranks of those who are more likely to object to public propositions.

  • NIMBYs are often white, male adults.
  • NIMBYs are often older residents who have more time to invest in local politics.
  • NIMBYs are often longtime residents of a specific geographic area.

While many politically charged terms tend to gravitate towards one side of the aisle or the other, NIMBYs are generally bipartisan. Both conservatives and liberals are regularly known to adopt the proactively protective, geographically defensive mindset.

Why Do NIMBYs Oppose New Development?

Due in large part to the bipartisan nature of NIMBYs and the varied opinions that they often have, there are many reasons a NIMBY might oppose new development near their home.

At times the argument may be reasonable, such as resisting a public works project that has the potential to cause:

  • Havoc with local traffic.
  • A significant increase of localized pollution.
  • A decrease in local property values.
  • A negative effect on the quality of life for local residents.

At other times the reasons behind a NIMBY’s arguments have been known to be weak or even hostile in nature, such as objections made — publically or otherwise — on racial, class, or other socially prejudiced grounds.

The Connotations of NIMBY

As with minimum wage, healthcare, and all other politically charged subjects, there are many connotations that are both positively and negatively associated with the term NIMBY.

Arguments for NIMBY

Supporters of the NIMBY phenomenon argue that those who embrace it are actively interested in improving their communities. They naturally care about local government — something that is often overlooked by the larger voting body — and may be the most environmentally conscious and active members of their neighborhoods.

Proponents of the NIMBY mindset also argue that the popularization of the term has created a derogatory overtone that allows detractors to dismiss them altogether. This tendency to write off those with opposing viewpoints without a thought to the merits of their arguments can lead to toxic political environments in which no opinions can be expressed without invoking a hateful response.

In addition, those who oppose NIMBYs often fail to take into consideration the fact that they are not currently facing the possibility of having a prison, highway, or other public works project constructed in their own backyard.

Arguments Against NIMBY

In spite of those who argue in favor of the concept, the term NIMBY generally has negative connotations associated with it. Criticism often revolves around the perception that NIMBYs are selfish, privileged, and elitist in their demands.

This opinion is particularly espoused when a NIMBY opposes a new development that would provide assistance or other social services to low-income individuals, people of color, and those with disabilities. Opponents also point out the concern that stalling things like housing development and urban growth adds fuel to the fire when it comes to issues like the rising cost of housing.

In addition to these specific objections, many opponents to NIMBYism highlight the generally hypocritical nature of NIMBYism as a whole. They point out that opposing a project simply because it is located near you and being satisfied if it is moved into someone else’s backyard is not a reasonable standpoint.

The Consequences of NIMBYism

While NIMBYism makes sense to those affected by local development in the short term, it can also often have significant consequences on the development of a neighborhood, city, or even an entire region.

NIMBY campaigns are carried out by devoted, passionate individuals who are acclimated to the local government and typically know how to achieve political results. When successful, NIMBY protests can have a significant impact on the lives and finances of many others around them. The effect can also spread to the larger local economy by hindering or helping factors like the traffic flow or environmental state of a geographic region.

These consequences are not uniformly positive or negative. A campaign to stop the construction of a local highway, for instance, may leave a small town or village suffering from congested traffic and hazardous driving conditions. Conversely, a push to resist the installation of a publically run hydropower plant may prevent the disruption of fish and wildlife habitats.

Regardless of the specific scenario, NIMBYs can be a powerful force for change in local governments. Their knowledge of local government systems and elections coupled with the passion to resist development can significantly impact the lives of those living around them, for better or for worse.


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