Connor Dougherty published this thoughtful piece about NIMBYs over the weekend in the New York Times. And it has been making the rounds online ever since.
It is thoughtful in that Connor tries to understand what makes NIMBYs tick. And he does this by interviewing people like Susan Kirsch, a resident of Marin County, California who generally opposes all of the things that California is doing to try and address its housing shortage and who has been fighting a townhouse project in her neighborhood for the last 18 years.
The developer, who is now 86, started the project in his 60s. In the article he is quoted saying that he’s either going to succeed or he’s going to die. It’s one or the other.
What is clear is that we all see things differently. While some people might see new housing as serving an important need. Others see new development as running counter to environmentalism and good stewardship. Indeed, for some, there is no shortage of housing (even in cities that are growing in population). It’s simply a problem of too many investors buying and creating rental homes or too many Airbnbs or some other red herring.
Whatever the case may be, it’s hard not to pay attention to quotes like this one:
“From my backyard I see the hillside,” Ms. Kirsch wrote from her Hotmail account. “Explain how my property value is not deflated if open space is replace(d) with view-blocking, dense, unsightly buildings.”
Look, we all get this. Nobody wants their views obstructed. Nobody wants more cars parked in their neighborhood. And nobody wants more dog shit in their local park, among many other things. But implicit in this statement is a view that certain people’s needs and desires are more important than those of others. I was here first. Too bad for you.
I’m going to guess that the do gooders at the United Nations or the World Economic Forum have NOT enshrined access to sunlight as a fundamental human right. From my home (and my office more recently), I don’t see the sun from November to March. The reason: someone tore down the adjacent mid-century ranch bungalow and put up a two story ocean liner last year. The ranch was home to four people. The new home has double the square footage but is home to only two people. I didn’t say anything during the development process; I now deeply regret that.
I read this article with interest. Trained as an anthropologist, I have been deeply interested in understanding how housing and development impact and are filtered through the motivations, perceptions and lived experiences of people in contrast to the nuance-free ways these things tend to get represented in the media. To that extent, this article was interesting and illuminating but, ultimately, for me at least, a disappointment. The NIMBY represented was a caricature and so far to one side of the spectrum that she and her concerns are still easy to dismiss despite the evidence of her good intentions. I’m much more interested in the mushy middle, the grey zone that sits somewhere between being in favour of new development but allowing for reasonable concessions to neighborhoods and not wanting developers to be able to get whatever they want. This is less newsworthy but much more common. NIMBY vs YIMBY misrepresents what should be a much more nuanced engagement – the hard work of city building – between citizens, cities, neighbours and developers.
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These are fundamentally “shared views” and shared interests in the use of land – there is no “my view”. Development on any property will impact views from others.
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I have unfortunately run into a lot of nimbyism of the type that is described here focused on the simple perceived benefits of one person vs perhaps the broader needs of a community. At the same time, I have also conducted numerous exercises (design charrettes) in many communities where potential objectors and developers joined together with any number of interested parties in the design exercise to find innovative solutions to many “problems”. It is rather enlightening to witness (repeatedly) just how much so-called opposite sides can come together when the exercise is genuine and when it is structured well. Myron the “do-gooders” at the UN may not have enshrined access to sunlight as a right but many (most?) zoning bylaws do and most projects have to demonstrate that it will be maintained…..sounds like your local bylaws were missing something. The stepped forms of New York skyscrapers are based on that issue; admitting sun to the street. I m sure Brandon can confirm he has done numerous shadow studies himself for example.
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I have an interesting perspective on this weekends NYT article, I live three houses away from Ms. Kirsch, and I see the view of that site from my driveway (my house is under Mr. Richardson’s thumb in the image with the aerial map). I am an architect/builder/developer in the Bay Area so I will admit I am biased. I have started to look at the long drawn out opposition to this project, the rhetoric is so misguided, so incorrect, based on emotion, and easy for neighbors to get on board, it is hard to fathom. I can no longer afford to buy a house in Mill Valley, average prices are on the $2-3M range. More housing is in more need. I am trying to track down Mr. Richardson to throw my support behind his efforts. The Bay Area needs more housing, Mill Valley needs more housing. I breve the current plan increases the number of units, increase the BR units. I will admit it is a nice hillside, but they will be nice buildings, and there are a lot more hillsides in Marin County that cannot support housing. This site can.
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