Durable Growth

The Planners: NIMBYism across the Pond

Residential front door near London

Residential front door near London

To give myself a respite from my flailing attempt to write a personal “Intro to Urbanism”, I’ll jump across the Atlantic Ocean and check out another episode of the BBC show “The Planners”, along with another couple of videos more or less pertinent to urbanism.

One aspect I love about British television is that the producers and directors don’t feel compelled to drive a point home.  They’re content to offer a vignette or two, leaving it to the discerning viewer to connect the dots.  It’s a lesson from which I could learn something for my own writing.

Thus, in episode six of season one, “The Planners” covers several land-use planning controversies in which NIMBYism plays a key role, without once pointing out the mirror images between two of the storylines.  (I’m probably being overly pedantic here, but I guess I should explain that NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Backyard and refers to people who only participate in the land-use process when they fear that their own ox is about to be gored.)

In one storyline, neighbors, who themselves live in single-family homes recently built on former greenfields, argue against further single-family homes in the adjoining greenfields.  To offer an alternative, they identify an abandoned site in the village center, arguing that the community would be best served by putting new homes closer to existing density.

In another storyline, located elsewhere, neighbors, who live in urban flats, complain that student apartments proposed for the underused commercial site next door should go elsewhere because their neighborhood is already dense enough.  (Plus they suspect that students wouldn’t be good neighbors.)

So the folks who live in suburbs argue that growth should happen downtown and the folks who live downtown argue that growth should occur in the suburbs.  It’s typical of the illogic that results when NIMBYs get involved.

From years of working in the land-use field, I have a split perspective toward NIMBYs.  On one hand, I support the principle of everyone having a say in land-use decisions.  I don’t think that single-issue democracy is a good strategy for land use, but the adoption of community land-use standards followed by a broad and inclusive discussion of whether a particular project conforms to those standards is a fine approach.

But NIMBYs often make arguments that are irritating and unhelpful to either their own case or the overall process.  Rather than admitting the truth that is obvious to all, that they’re involved only because they have a personal interest in the particular decision, they try to invoke broad standards, usually in a way that is laughably wrong.

An example from the greenfield storyline is the neighbor who argues that approval would set a precedent that would inevitably result in numerous other parcels also being developed.  He’s forgetting that he lives in a relatively new home in a former greenfield.  If precedent were an inviolable principle, then his own home would have set the precedent and he wouldn’t have any opportunity to comment on the current proposal.  So invoking a concern about precedent only shows his naiveté.

But the BBC, in their understated British style, doesn’t make this point, instead leaving it to the viewer to connect the dots.

The episode contains two other storylines.  The first also pivots on NIMBYism as neighbors argue that a final proposal for a zoo expansion is sufficiently different from the earlier plan that the earlier preliminary approval should be overturned and the process started anew from the beginning.

Unfortunately, the point is one of English planning law that those of us on this side of the Atlantic can’t judge.  However, it was ironic to watch a zoo struggle with the English equivalent of an endangered species act.

The final storyline was about a grand old 18,000 square foot estate house with a historical designation that had been largely surrounded by the town.  The result of the encircling growth was that there were no buyers at a price that would allow the owner to avoid foreclosure.  At least that was the position that the owner was taking.

The owner’s proposed solution was to divide the existing home into flats and to add several new homes on the remainder of the estate grounds.  Although compliance with the historical preservation standards for the existing home would be expensive, the profit on the new homes would allow the overall project to proceed.  Overall, it seemed a fine solution, following a nearby precedent where an old army barracks had undergone a similar transformation.

However, the plan required the approval of the local historic preservation officer, who has appeared several times previously in “The Planners”, always with a strict, non-problem-solving approach.  Once again, he took the hard line, denying the conversion to flats and perhaps leaving the property closer to foreclosure.  Not having more than a few minutes of familiarity with the situation, it’s hard to know if the historic preservation officer was wrong in this case, but he strikes me as someone who is overly enamored with his authority.

As always, “The Planners” offers intriguing and nuanced looks at the world of land-use planning.  At least to us land-use geeks, it’s always a joy to watch an episode.

As long as we’re viewing videos, allow me to offer another couple of links.

If one considers parallel parking to be an essential skill in an urban setting, then the setting of a new world record for parking with the smallest bumper-to-bumper gaps would seem to be an urban sport.  Check out this video of the new record-holder doing the Tokyo drift with barely more than three inches to spare.

The video raises four questions.  Is parallel parking truly a spectator sport in Japan?  How come we don’t get to see the failed attempts at the world record?  Are the failed attempts the reason that parallel parking is a Japanese spectator sport?  And lastly, who has the contract for the auto body work that must go along with the failed attempts?

Finally, check out this video of a walk/don’t walk sign with dancing figures.  Using a temporary motion-sensing video studio, the dance moves of volunteer pedestrians are shown real-time in place of the standard walk/don’t walk figures.

It’s a fun and compelling video.  If the technology were to come to an intersection near me, I could settle on a bench and watch for hours.  It’s absolutely unscalable to the real world as ennui would soon result, but that’s okay.  Sometimes the most fun comes from one-off ideas.

Next up, I’ll return to my Intro to Urbanism, buttoning up my arguments on fiscal urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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