NIMBYs are Right, Development is Terrible

Today's guest writer is Austin Maitland, a graduate student in urban planning at Rutgers University.

The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movement gets a bad rap. Developers and market-oriented planners alike are quick to scoff at stories of defiant residents seeking to block development of one kind or another. There’s a good reason for their concerns; the NIMBY push to choke off development has contributed to extreme housing shortages across the country. But NIMBYism is far more than just another annoying obstructionist movement. NIMBYism represents an insightful symptom of a deeply flawed system of development. To this extent, planners and developers have a lot to learn from their most vocal adversaries.

Before considering NIMBY arguments and their implications, it’s important to define NIMBYism. NIMBYism is the mentality that development is unacceptable and must be stopped. A NIMBY is someone who abides by this mentality. Of course, there is nuance to this idea. Some NIMBYs simply do not like development that may impact their properties specifically; this could be considered “soft NIMBYism” and often results in reasonable tweaks to developers’ plans. Other NIMBYs reject the idea of development at a town-wide or even regional basis. This “hard NIMBYism” is particularly influential as well-organized groups of activists have the ability to sink entire projects.

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Source: Johnny Sanphillippo

Let’s take a look at some of the most common NIMBY arguments and their relative truth:

 1. There is Already too Much Traffic

Whether it’s a new shopping center or subdivision, traffic is almost always at the forefront of the debate. The sad truth is that NIMBYs are not usually wrong, especially in suburban America. Of course people moving into that new subdivision will need cars to get around. And traffic congestion is not an insignificant problem. Some estimates peg the amount of time Americans spend in traffic at 42 hours per person per year. That’s almost two days in lost time that could be spent with family, being productive at work, or enjoying a hobby. Undoubtedly, NIMBYs are right to have an interest in the amount of traffic congestion.

2. More Schoolchildren and Higher Taxes

In the case of a new subdivision, NIMBYs are quick to point out that families with children will move in and drive up school taxes. Aside from attracting costly children, single-family homes require a tremendous amount of public investment in the form of utilities and street infrastructure. While there is little a local government can (or should) do about limiting the number of children in town, NIMBYs are right to bring attention to the net drain this type of housing has on town coffers.

3. Less Open Space

Suburban subdivisions and shopping centers take up ton of space. Nobody wants to see a picturesque farm turned into a massive Walmart Supercenter. Nor would most people choose a large apartment complex over a quiet greenspace. And as we learned in the building boom of the early 2000s, nothing destroys a town’s character faster than proliferation of sprawling McMansions.

What can we do About it?

So how can planners and developers respond? To start, we must recognize that resistance to development usually implies a false dichotomy: develop or don’t develop. In reality, there is an important third option: change how to develop. Development patterns are heavily influenced, if not entirely dictated, by municipal zoning codes. At present, these codes prescribe the kinds of development fueling NIMBYism. Therefore, reasonable arguments put forth by NIMBYs can help guide the much-needed analysis and reform of our zoning laws.

A typical suburban zoning map. Click to view larger. Notice the separation of uses, homogenous, car-dependent development patterns, and disconnected street network. No doubt this town faces congestion issues and a bloated highway department budget. Yet, this is the only type of development allowed by law.

On Traffic: To start, consider that while traffic congestion tops the list of complaints associated with new development, zoning laws continue to mandate car-dependence. Especially in the suburbs, residential uses are almost always forbidden from co-locating with shopping or employment centers preventing reasonable access by foot or bicycle. In addition, parking minimums force developers to reserve massive amounts of land for cars regardless of what the actual demand for parking may be. Most of our zoning codes are designed to encourage as much driving as possible. It should come as no surprise when towns of even low density find themselves dealing with frustrating traffic congestion.

On Rising Cost and Taxes: The enforcement of auto-dependency also comes at a tremendous cost, fueling another point of NIMBY contention: development often consumes more resources than it contributes. Suburban municipalities religiously zone the vast majority of their land for car-dependent single-family homes and strip development. But basic property tax analyses show that these types of development produce, at best, a fraction of the property tax revenue that more traditional, mixed-use developments produce. Not to mention the cost of constructing and maintaining vast road networks to serve such low densities continues to inflate housing prices and consume municipal budgets.

On Open Space: Finally, suburban zoning typically requires a minimum lot size of half an acre, one acre, or more. This isn’t a major problem in rural communities where demand for land and housing is low (for now). However, in places with access to expanding job markets like Silicon Valley or suburban New Jersey, land is rapidly built-out, prices begin to skyrocket as demand outpaces supply, and residents lament the loss of open space. This is not an example of market failure, but of government that insists on forcing development to consume enormous amounts of land, leaving little for greenspace.

The good news is, all of this can change. And in some of our larger cities, it has. In early 2017, Buffalo became the first major U.S. city to completely eliminate parking minimums. Earlier this year, a study of downtown Seattle found 4,500 fewer single-occupancy vehicles on the streets per day during a period in which downtown added 60,000 jobs. Imagine if every city could accommodate that kind of growth while reducing traffic. There’s no reason similar changes can’t happen on a much smaller scale throughout the suburbs, easing some of the biggest NIMBY concerns. However, it will take an entirely new approach to regulating land use.

With some basic zoning reform, we can get to a place where new development doesn’t automatically mean more traffic, higher taxes, and less open space. But the government has to get out of the way and allow developers to pursue more cost-effective, spatially-efficient development patterns. It’s not easy to build widespread support for something as unsexy as zoning reform. Luckily, we have dedicated, passionate groups of people all over the country making a powerful case for change. For that, NIMBYs, we thank you.

(Top photo source: Johnny Sanphilllippo)