Are we all NIMBYs?

Jul 13, 2016 | Discussion Topics | 10 comments

NIMBY. It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot these days—especially in a city like Boston that’s experiencing so much growth—so it’s fascinating to pause and consider its real significance. Deferring to the Oxford English Dictionary for the best definition of NIMBY, an acronym for “Not in My Backyard,” the term is loaded:

“A person who objects to the siting of something perceived as unpleasant or hazardous in their own neighborhood, especially while raising no such objections to similar developments elsewhere.”

While “NIMBY” wasn’t even in the dictionary until a couple of years ago, it has taken little time to gain traction. NIMBY has a pejorative connotation, but taken at face value the concept has broader implications: being a NIMBY could mean that you don’t want a new high rise near your brownstone, but it could also mean that you worry about the implications of a new development for rents and cost of living in your area. The BRA has to navigate these perspectives and priorities on a constant basis.

The crux of the matter is that some opposition to change is valid and reasonable, but change is also a necessary byproduct of growth and the evolution of modern cities. Moreover, being a NIMBY is in itself a privilege, as it implies that you have a backyard to protect in the first place. So no, we aren’t all NIMBYs. But maybe some of us are more than we thought.

With that, some questions:

  • Is there such thing as a…YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”)? What does that look like?
  • Could the BRA do a better job of helping people deal with change?
  • In a global city that’s also known for its neighborhood feel, how do we define what our backyard is anyway? Do we make decisions based on our immediate surroundings, or what we think is best for the future of Boston as a whole?

Let us know what you think by writing in the comments section below!




  1. This made me think of Rawl’s concept of the Original Position from A Theory of Justice ( Talking about social contract theory is a little poetic, but hopefully by way of analogy it can be somewhat useful…

    -In Development Review, stakeholders who perceive they have something to lose (i.e. something that would negatively impact their “back yard”) are often the people most motivated to participate in and influence the process. Ways in which “back yards” could be improved, or how more people could get “back yards” becomes a secondary discussion, and those who have that kind of stake may not even make it to the table.

    -In contrast, participants in a Planning Study are forced to take a viewpoint more akin to the Veil of Ignorance ( In this analogy, since there is not a specific building with specific attributes that is the object of discussion, the conversation would be less dominated by what people are worried about losing, and more inclusively focused on what the larger and more representative community wants to gain. (And consequently, it would be easier to collectively agree on certain tradeoffs that are needed to achieve those net “gains”.) In this environment everyone would agree on the set of rules to play by (i.e. zoning) and in the future would, ideally, follow those rules as a guide to what constitutes an appropriate development project.

    Right now it seems the lines are blurred on whether the BRA exists to ask the community to engage in planning or in development review. It should exist to do both: they each add value to the process in complementary ways. The city shouldn’t miss out on the potential benefits of a kind of NIMBY-inoculation that can occur only in a planning context.

  2. To combat the rapidly rising cost of housing, we need to build as much of it as we can, as quickly as possible. NIMBY’s are an menace to affordability in this city.

  3. Some thoughts from my Twitter feed, each < 140 chars…
    (1/3) NIMBYism is often reflexive response to proposals misaligned w @BostonRedevelop-stated "planning" objectives.
    (2/3) NIMBYism is mistrust, as significant community objectives forged thru work & compromise are often forgotten.
    (3/3) NIMBYism is often is a result of spot zoning: approval of projects far afield of any anticipated trajectory.

    The issues I think requiring reformation in order to develop trust (e.g. reduce NIMBYism) don't regard messaging, communications, positioning or branding.

    I don't see an interest within the BRA to respect plans already developed within our community (plans that already contemplated significant density). I don't see an interest in upping the game in design approvals — no apparent change at all at BCDC or Article 80 review. I continue to see our significant community objectives quietly jettisoned (in PDA amendments and NPCs) while profits from development rights (which I track) appear astronomical; I see a secondary market where speculators and consultants are reaping windfalls from the sale of BRA development rights without building anything; and I see so-called "community benefits" too often negotiated via the IAG process as breadcrumbs. Support for projects too often arrives from beneficiaries of BRA largesse, even in the form of payments from BRA mitigation accounts.

    With respect to transparency, I just don't see reformation of the process through which developers pay into opaque accounts (Cooperation Agreements?) and somewhere within the BRA decisions are made as to disbursements from these accounts.

    Without question, NIMBYism has arisen in my community by those who've experienced the impacts of a largely developer-driven process. It appears that the BRA depends on new generations of young Bostonians, those lacking any awareness of past history. We see planning charrettes repeated with newcomers. In other words, the NIMBY epithet is easy to ascribe to residents who've been through the ringer with the BRA.

    My hat's off to those at the BRA who understand what I'm saying here, and are working toward change deep within the BRA. Clearly, communications at the BRA have improved dramatically with the new administration, a sign of hope.

  4. Instead of spending tax dollars on a PR campaign, why not actually change how the BRA does business?

    Work on creating a long-term development plan for each neighborhood of Boston that balances the input of various groups along, the city’s desire to increase its tax base, and services new development requires.

  5. The real problem I have with NIMBY-ism, is when the NIMBY’s scream and holler about a potential new high-rise development which blocks their views. Most of these people hollering are living in a building which itself blocked other’s views when it was constructed! How ironic and hypocritical! Public comment is crucial and beneficial with most projects, but not if it stops progress just for the sake of not wanting development.
    The city is in a constant state of change, and we are lucky to be living in a city which is booming instead of declining-like many other older cities are. With Boston’s limited land supply, and the Mayor’s initiative to try and build 30,000 new apts. ASAP, we all have to accept that growth is inevitable, and that means big buildings have to go somewhere….and that somewhere is our own backyards.

  6. Agree with Steve, much nimbyism is simply residents advocating for BRA approved planning documents and guidelines, which the BRA ignores as soon as they are printed- see 100 acres plan, Stuart Albany zoning, current proposals that violate article 68 in Southie. So long as planning/zoning exercises are seen as pie in the skie idea BS, then they will be given the corresponding level of importance by the community. The BRA both talks about long term planning and zoning as being the solution while simultaneously violating the direction of those efforts for current projects. So long as this continues there will be zero confidence in the planning efforts. The BRA would be better served to just come out and say : “the big picture economic benefit of this development is so great that we are going to find a way to send it to the board in 4-6 weeks.” At least the public would know where the priorities lie and I believe would respect the BRA more. The current ” we are here to mediate the proposal to come up with something the community and developer can agree on” is BS. Because the community rarely agrees to a development. In the absence of an agreement… The development goes to the board. The BRA board approves projects at 100%. So developers play the waiting game and whine to the electeds “they’ve held us up long enough, we want to get shovels in the ground” which wins every time.

    And the first post is nimbyism.

  7. Sorry for the delayed reply, but we appreciate all of your thoughtful comments. I’ve worked at the BRA now for almost two and a half years (and for the City of Boston for over eight years), and I get a glimpse into the push and pull of these issues on a daily basis. As a fairly new resident of South Boston (formerly of Allston/Brighton), I’m surrounded by the change that’s taking place in the city at both a professional and personal level, and it’s what makes working here exciting.

    I think everyone on the thread has expressed interesting thoughts on the causes and effects of NIMBYism, and I won’t try to respond to each and every one of them. But what strikes me as I’ve gotten to know the work of the BRA is that change is an inherently tricky — and oftentimes contentious — thing to manage. At the end of the day, that’s what the public looks to us to do. In my personal opinion, it would be unrealistic for us to think that we’ll achieve unanimity of opinion with respect to planning and development issues. There will always be different viewpoints to balance, and there are rarely cut-and-dry “right” or “wrong” sides to be on.

    With this notion in mind, I feel like our challenge as an agency — and one that we’re working hard with Continuum and other stakeholders to address — is to better express our priorities and clearly convey how and why we make the decisions that we do. Transparency and accountability are thrown around so frequently as buzz words these days, but if we’re honest with ourselves those things were lacking at the BRA historically.

    We may not always agree on the outcomes, which is OK, but we can strive to communicate better. I’d also say we need to do a better job of engaging those who don’t typically come to community meetings. With our current approach to meetings, the loudest voices tend to dominate the conversation, but are we truly getting a representative sense of opinions?

    I raise that question not to make excuses for poor decisions that the BRA might have made in the past, but as an example of how difficult it is to build consensus around the complex issues we manage.

    I’m very hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction — I certainly think we are. I have to remind myself that changing the culture of the agency can be as challenging as managing the changing nature of the city, but we’re working diligently to do both on behalf of the people of Boston. It’s our responsibility to the community, and one we take seriously.

    Director of Communications, BRA

  8. Many of the “loudest voices”, mentioned in Nick Martin’s comments, are people who the community trusts to speak for them. They are loud because they speak for an entire neighborhood.

  9. As a community resident in Allston Brighton I have grave concerns about the lack of a long-term comprehensive development plan for our neighborhood that balances the input of various groups. Input from community members is invaluable as they live with the consequences of poor planning every day. This incremental project by project approach is a recipe for disaster. We also need to take into account what is happening in neighboring cities. NIMBYism is not a bad a thing most of the time, it demonstrates a level of civic engagement that is vital to our communities and it results in a vigorous conversation about community needs. We urgently need a comprehensive planning process that looks at the big picture and takes into account the longer view or 10 -20 years out. Opportunities for owner occupancy and affordable rentals for families are critical the the health and stability of our community and that is not being reflected in the projects coming up for review.

  10. As a Boston resident I want to say “yes in my backyard” to projects that provide affordable housing but not with 30 market rate units for each affordable one. That are designed with the direction the residents and businesses in the neighborhood want to go in; that preserve the historic built and natural treasures of my community. the projects should not generate lots of traffic and if it must, have a plan to direct as much of the traffic to modes other than the single occupancy car. My neighborhood has said yeas to several projects that turned out well and is not supporting a project that is too big and will overwhelm the neighborhood. We hate poorly designed and sloppily built “as of right” projects built by developers who are in at the make as much money as possible by filling the apartments with tenants who each pay a lot of money.

    BRA’s 1st priority should be to listen to residents and tax payers and encourage projects that support them. “Balancing” competing interest seldom works and creates distrust among parties. Open presentation of information, financial and design by the developer can help the neighbors understand the developers concerns and make encourage better projects. The developer’s investors who require a 5005 return within 4 years should not drive project design and permitting. The BRA needs to prove to the residents that it’s motto is not “we’ve never seen a big (expensive) project we have not liked.”


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