James Beaudreau Describes Summer Internship on NIMBYism

JimPictureOver the summer of 2013, I was able to work with Wendy Sarkissian to develop resources for the NIMBY Clearinghouse. These materials included a PowerPoint presentation,  NIMBY Psychology: What Can a Planner Do? (PDF – 1.1 MB), which Wendy delivered at the Queensland Chapter of the Planning Institute of Australia on September 3, 2013; an accompanying conference paper, Seeking a Path beyond NIMBY (PDF – 153 KB), which that was coauthored by Wendy and me; and a list of scholarly literature (PDF – 156KB) on the topic of NIMBYism that illustrates the broad range of opinions and disagreements related to use of the term.
This work was performed as an internship as part of my coursework at the University of British Columbia’s School for Community and Regional Planning, where I am currently a second-year masters student. My studies have so far focused on urban design, social and community planning, and the development of environmental sustainable communities.

My Interest in NIMBYism

One of the major issues that attracted me to planning, and an area where I hope to be able to contribute once in practice, is addressing the need for providing more compact, mixed-use, and walkable urban communities. Built environments featuring these attributes have reduced energy consumption, better air quality, and reduced green house gas emissions. They also have positive impacts on health outcomes by encouraging walking and other active lifestyles, as well as economic and social benefits by allowing people to live closer to their places of work, schools, recreational facilities, and stores.
I’ve also been interested in the politics of local land-use disputes in urban settings, especially in the context of efforts to promote density in existing neighbourhoods. Even in Vancouver, which has plenty of examples of dense, mixed-use, walkable communities offering high quality of life, proposals to change existing communities, such as by adding additional housing or bicycle paths, can be highly contentious.
When Wendy was looking for a student to examine the literature on the so-called NIMBY phenomenon, I immediately knew this would be the perfect project to inform my planning education. I was curious to know more about how researchers and other professionals understood these land-use conflicts. I was especially excited to look at the issue from the context of other disciplines, such as environmental psychology.

What I Learned

I was surprised by the contentious nature of the literature on NIMBYism. Use of the NIMBY term is often used to oversimplify a vast range of concerns and motives for opposing many different types of development. It is often used as a pejorative term to dismiss or invalidate the legitimate concerns of concerned community members. Review of many articles critical of the use of the NIMBY term provide evidence that its widespread use is inherently counterproductive to understanding the dynamics of local land-use conflicts.
The environmental psychology literature, especially looking at concepts of place attachment, place identity, place disruption, and place-protective behaviour, provides a very interesting counterbalance to that of much of the planning literature. These psychological concepts can help us understand why people value their communities and why they are so protective of their homes when faced with change.
The literature also provides evidence that more effective public engagement methods may be able to alleviate conflict in local land-use conflicts and allow change to occur in a way in which local communities are active participants in that change. Specifically, more sophisticated and complex decision‐making processes in local land‐use conflicts that are deliberative, inclusive, and participatory are likely to achieve better outcomes than traditional outreach and engagement methods.

Implications for Future Research

While the research I conducted over the summer is very helpful in informing our understanding of the theoretical dynamics of local land use disputes, much more research needs to be done in terms of translating this theory into principals that can be incorporated into planning practice. In particular, we need to collect examples of successful engagement and decision‐making processes that are truly deliberative, inclusive, and participatory. Surveys of planners may help identify candidates of effective processes that could be further examined. At a time in which cities across the world facing population growth and environmental pressures are grappling with how to promote denser and more compact communities, research that further refines effective engagement strategies in local-use disputes will be indispensable.
Contact me by email at jbeaudreau (at) alumni (dot) ubc (dot) ca.

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