Strange cases of NIMBYism

Putting individual interests first can hurt the greater public good

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 10, 2012

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Putting individual interests first can hurt the greater public good

Arrol Gellner
Inman News®

A recent editorial in my local paper crowed, "Nothing like people power to stop a cell tower," referring to a very upscale neighborhood whose residents had managed to block a cell phone company's plans to build a cell phone mast.

"The people," it continued, "have won big ... rallying to keep the cell tower (designed to look like a tree) from 'taking root' in their neighborhood."

Yeah, they won big, and I'm sure they all got on their cell phones to tell each other the good news.

Now, I'd be the last person to stand up for any big corporation, let alone a communications behemoth like the one involved here.

But there was more than a whiff of hypocrisy in this NIMBY ("not in my backyard") crowd, each of whom were happy to jabber on their cell phones all day long, but who preferred to banish those frightful-looking cell phone towers to some blue-collar neighborhood where they "belonged."

Nor is this kind of me-first thinking always just aimed at big, bad corporations -- it's just as often neighbor against neighbor.

Following the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, which destroyed more than 3,000 upscale homes, the rebuilding process became mired in countless squabbles regarding, of all things, views.

Homeowners who had rebuilt first immediately assumed possession of the spectacular, wide-open vistas created by the fire's giant swath of destruction, and many were infuriated to find that that later homes rebuilt by their neighbors would impinge on them.

An even stranger example of NIMBYism is the more recent flap over the proposed plan for the National Aids Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

In 2003, the memorial's board of directors, apparently without being fully committed or perhaps even fully aware of what it was doing, issued a call for entries for a new memorial design befitting the site's national status. Hundreds of designers the world over responded, and a winning scheme was duly selected with great fanfare.

Yet after having set in motion this vast effort by many dedicated people, a majority of the memorial's board of directors ultimately voted to kill the project, saying in so many words that any kind of change to the current memorial would damage a place that carried highly personal meanings for them. This is the first time I can recall a group crying NIMBY at an idea of their own creation.

Despite the foregoing examples of "me-firstism," I don't think people themselves have grown more selfish. Rather, we have cultivated a civic framework that now actively encourages obstructionism and the placement of individual gain ahead of the wider public good.

For example, all but the tiniest building projects are now subject to endless rounds of meetings and public scrutiny, heavily weighting outcomes in favor of simply maintaining the status quo. Hence, anyone proposing change is routinely placed on the defensive by groups seeking to preserve their own personal fiefdoms.

When it comes to dealing with change, our expectations are too often inflamed by the agreeable but sometimes untenable concept of "win-win": the idea that an outcome can be expected to satisfy everyone involved. Well, we can talk about win-win, but it doesn't happen without a little giving in.

Read Arrol Gellner's blog at, or follow him on Twitter: @ArrolGellner.

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