Is Strong Towns NIMBY, YIMBY, or What?

My daughters are in their teenage years, this awkward time when clique allegiances create all kinds of nasty behavior. I’ve witnessed my daughters being on the receiving end of attacks from a pack of mean girls, but I’ve also witnessed them participate in the other side of the exchange (and, yes I’ve pointed out the twisted moral license that prompts a young girl—kind, compassionate, and good at heart—to engage in such behavior, but teenage girls I’m finding to be rather headstrong, especially when Dad is speaking).

In The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes this moral license and its roots in our evolutionary past. We’re wired to be tribal creatures, and we often find it easier—even good sport—to circle around our own and attack the other. As Haidt says, “morality binds and blinds”—it binds us together and blinds us to other truths. Being a teenage girl is difficult, but I’m hopeful that my daughters—and their peers—will mature through this phase and grow to become adults with the awareness and self-control to overcome this tendency.

As we know, social media platforms like Twitter have a way of exercising ancient urges to circle around sacred objects and attack the other. As the Strong Towns Team was on a retreat in Asheville this past weekend, there was a long—and kind of vicious—set of attacks on us for, essentially, providing comfort to NIMBYs (those who oppose all change in their neighborhoods). This is a complaint I’ve heard before.

First, I’m sympathetic to where this attack is coming from. So let me make clear what our actual stance is.

We’ve said many times for many years that neighborhoods need to be allowed to evolve, to adapt and change over time. We’ve always opposed zoning codes and other regulations that put neighborhoods under glass. Half of our mantra on housing is that no neighborhood can be exempt from change. We join with affordable housing advocates, self-proclaimed YIMBYs, Market Urbanists and others who call for an end to single-family zoning and exclusionary neighborhoods. The largest city in my home state of Minnesota—the place where I’ve advocated the longest and have the deepest roots— has taken a Strong Towns approach and allowed the next increment of development intensity, by right, throughout all neighborhoods.

People who categorically oppose neighborhood change are wrong. They are wrong historically: this is not how human habitat is designed to work. And they are wrong practically: we can’t financially sustain neighborhoods built all at once to a finished state. People who are authentically Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) have no home in Strong Towns.

In what reminds me of George W. Bush and his core supporters after the September 11th attacks in the run-up to war with Iraq, many of the self-proclaimed YIMBYs I encounter on social media often exude an “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality. One must either adopt a fully laissez faire approach locally, along with a corresponding embrace of centralized economic and regulatory control at the state and federal level, or one is an anti-growth NIMBY who secretly supports (insert your negative -ism of choice).

I do not support the indiscriminate tearing down of coherent single-family homes to make way for six story condominiums. I believe such practices— whether they are done by urban renewal government policy or Wall Street-funded development—distort local communities in unhealthy and destructive ways. I believe this approach artificially inflates housing values, dislocates the poor, stifles entry-level entrepreneurship, accelerates wealth inequality, and bankrupts local governments. I’ve spent over a decade sharing these views.

I believe the claims that true NIMBYs—not merely those outside of the radical’s orthodoxy but those who resist all change—are using Strong Towns language to resist reasonable changes to their neighborhood is overblown. Even so, I’m sure that it has happened and, as our movement continues to grow, will continue to happen. It’s compelling language, especially in a world where the default approach is some overscaled, debt-fueled public investment paired with a subsidized private investment (socialized risk / privatized gains) built all at once to a finished state completely out of scale with the neighborhood.

The key to discrediting these NIMBYs—and they should be discredited—is to force them to answer a simple question: What is the next increment of intensity you would support allowing by-right in your neighborhood? No rezoning or special exception, no costly, lengthy and uncertain approval process—we’re talking if you want to build it, you can easily go to City Hall, walk out with your permit, and get to work.

If it’s a neighborhood of single-family homes, that increment must be a duplex, at a bare minimum. It must also include neighborhood-scaled commercial development, businesses that operate with neighborhood-friendly hours and intensity. A true Strong Towns advocate is also going to support an end to parking minimums.

If someone in your community is opposing a development because they say they want a Strong Towns approach, but they’re not willing to commit to allowing the next increment of evolution of their neighborhood, then they either don’t know what they are talking about or they are being disingenuous. Either way, let me know and we’ll join you in pushing back on them. I don’t want our language misused or coopted for nefarious ends. If we can educate people and bring them along, all the better.

I used to identify as a YIMBY because I understood the term to be an embrace of neighborhood change and the evolution of human habitat to a higher state of intensity. Maybe that’s what it means to some—and I’ll be generous on an individual level until proven otherwise—but I don’t use the term for myself any longer because of how it has become associated, at least in some parts, with a radical, mean-spirited set of single-issue zealots that, regardless of their stated intentions, are fueling the affordability crisis they claim to be motivated by.

In a world where I’m forced to choose between the reactionary NIMBY and the radical YIMBY, I choose neither. My way—a Strong Towns approach—isn’t some moderate compromise between these two extremes but a revolution that rejects the all-at-once-to-a-finished-state hubris at the core of our current development pattern and the underlying zero-sum assumption of NIMBY/YIMBY thinking.