Is NIMBY Fighting Words?

  • Posted on: 12 February 2018
  • By: Michael Brydon

I took some heat on February 1st following another round of futile discussion about a regional compost site.  A woman walked up to me in the back of the RDOS boardroom during a break and asked what gave me the right to call her a NIMBY.  She was angry.  I was in no mood for this (given the aforementioned futility) and was angry in return.

I apologize for this—it is not my intention to get people angry at me.  Indeed, I am a bit surprised to be taking any heat on the compost issue at all because I have no personal stake in the ultimate location and am simply trying to do what I get paid to do as a regional district board member: make decisions in the long term best interest of the region.  We need to see the compost issue for what it is:  An important regional decision with massive economic and environmental consequences.  As I have said before, the RDOS’s failure to make an actual decision regarding a regional compost facility is not a win for anyone.  The food waste and sewage sludge and methane and leachate are still there.  Provincial regulations are still being contravened.  I have sat in a meeting with the Minister of the Environment and senior ministry staff and my assessment is that it could end very badly for regional taxpayers.

What is a NIMBY?

NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard”.  It is used to describe people who perceive that a particular project will affect them negatively and therefore campaign against the project.  As I made very clear in my comments to the RDOS board (prior to being confronted by an angry Summerlander), being a NIMBY is entirely rational.  I am a NIMBY when it suits me.  So when I use the word NIMBY to describe people, I am not using it in a pejorative sense.  Well, at least not entirely in a pejorative sense…


There is a very good documentary on the HBO loop right now about Jane Jacobs and her contributions to the rise of NIMBYism in American cities (and then Toronto).  The critical thing about Jane Jacob’s brand of NIMBYism is that it often led to good outcomes.  She was extremely effective at both articulating a theory of what makes cities livable and mobilizing opposition to anything that threatened that livability.  In many cases, that threat was the autocratic road building program of New York’s Robert Moses.

What is the lesson from Jane Jacob’s NIMBY activism?  The first lesson has to be that NIMBYism can be a positive force for change.  NIMBYs can compel politicians, planners and other technocrats (also not used pejoratively)  to reexamine their grand schemes in light of a different set of priorities and preferences.  The result is policies and projects that better reflect the desires of the community.  But does it follow that NIMBYism is always a positive force in a community?  Or can NIMBYism actually hurt a community by undermining its less vocal demcratic processes?

It seems to me that the difference between good and bad NIMBYism boils down to the quality of the decision process in question.  In Robert Moses’ case, the projects were typically large highways cutting through established, well-functioning neighborhoods.  Jacobs argued coherently and persuasively (most notably in The Death and Life of Great American Cities) that the emphasis on automobiles was entirely wrong.  Moses maintained that highways were good for cities—they were certainly good for some citizens (mostly elites), the construction industry, and his own empire.  But as Jacobs predicted, urban highways proved to be so destructive to the fabric of everyday life that the disadvantages spread far beyond the relatively small number of people directly impacted through dislocation.  Indeed, one of Vancouver’s great advantages as a city is that citizen activism (basically NIMBYism) overwhelmed its highway builders before they got much further than the Georgia Viaduct.

In short, Jane Jacobs's NIMBYism was a force for good because the projects under consideration were so bad.  Specifically, the road building projects represented the preferences and priorities of a handful of elites, rather than the bulk citizens living in those communities.  Boisterous and disruptive NIMBYism stopped Robert Moses—the ultimate authoritarian bureaucrat—from doing more damage to New York City and its surroundings.  It provided a democratic outcome in an environment in which the basic functioning of the democratic process had broken down due to cronyism, corruption, hubris, and isolation from the real world of city living.

What if, however, the project in question is not obviously bad?  What if the project is a reasonable response to emerging priorities around environmental and financial sustainability, rather than the offspring of corruption and authoritarian megalomania?  What is the role and value of NIMBYism when it conflicts with a functioning political process?

Winners and Losers

As noted previously, NIMBYism in the face of a locally undesirable land use is entirely rational.  But rational for an individual is not necessarily rational for a community.  This contradicts what Adam Smith, Gordon Gekko, and the First Fundamental Theorem of Welfare Economics tell us.  The free market system is based on the principle that individually-rational actions can bubble up into an outcome that is somehow optimal—hence the “invisible hand” and “greed is good”.  But governments operate in domains in which markets do not function well—that is really the whole purpose of governments.  And when markets fail, and no competitive equilibrium exists, all bets about the virtues of self-interested action are off.

In the face of market failure, democratic governments are expected to make decisions using a democratic process.  But citizens accustomed to the free market economy might find democracy a bit jarring when they see its effects up close and personal.  In the free market, all decisions are, by definition, voluntary.  No market transaction occurs unless at least one person is better off and no one is worse off.  When we leave the grocery store with a bag of apples, we are satisfied with the market price (otherwise we would not have bought the apples) and the grocer is also satisfied with the market price (otherwise she would not have sold the apples).  Democracy, in contrast, is majority rule.  And once the will of the majority is ascertained (no easy task, as discussed below), the government uses its coercive power to impose the will of the majority on the minority*.  In extreme cases, governments can use expropriation/eminent domain to take land from its owners (with compensation, of course) if it is deemed to be in the broader public interest.

The obvious implication is that democratic decisions almost always create winners and losers.  The reason is easy to see: if there were only winners, we could rely on voluntary transactions in markets to drive progress and there would be little requirement for government involvement in the decision process.  But majority rule inevitably creates losers and losers are increasingly likely to mount vocal and disruptive NIMBY opposition.

As noted previously, NIMBY opposition is good for the community when it corrects a democratic deficit.  But NIMBY opposition must necessarily be counterproductive when it collides with a functioning democratic process.  The problem in practice is that it is hard to know which is which.  Robert Moses, for his part, certainly thought he was acting in the best interest of the majority.  And we are now asking ourselves: Was the (provisional) decision to site a regional compost facility in Marron Valley was a democratic travesty or the best outcome for the community as a whole?  The challenge we face as elected officials when answering such questions is that "the majority" is typically dead silent.  This makes perfect sense when you think about the arithmetic of public consultation:  A project like a regional compost site creates modest benefits for tens of thousands of people but imposes enormous costs (let’s assume) on and handful of people.  Who is going to take the time to write and phone and attend meetings and protest: (a) the 60,000 busy people with a weak stake in the outcome or (b) the dozen or so facing much larger losses?  Not surprisingly, most of the NIMBYs we see are retired. Participation in the democratic process (above and beyond the selection of representatives) requires enormous time and energy. 

The mismatch between the silent majority and energized NIMBYs is, of course, a source of much anxiety for elected officials.  The tendency of some governments in the face of strong NIMBY opposition (and silence everywhere else) is to punt.  But automatically acquiescing at the first whiff of NIMBY opposition means that the will of the majority is not realized.  This is not democracy; rather, it is government by vocal special interest.  From a practical point of view, the NIMBY veto results a series of compromises and half-measures—whatever path offers the least resistance.  The current Campbell Mountain Landfill is a stinking historical example of such a suboptimal outcome.

Hearing the Voice of the Majority

There are two general approaches to dealing with the silent majority/vocal NIMBY mismatch.  The first is to seek better, less biased information about what everyone wants.  When I say bias here, I am talking about sampling bias.  I often hear things like, “All 30 people at the meeting were against the proposal.”  Unfortunately, this tells me nothing.  Thirty people is too small to be compelling in itself.  And people who come to protest meetings generally differ in significant ways from people who do not come to meetings.  We need to compare the 30 who came to 30 from the same neighborhood who did not come.  This is harder.

The most expensive and least effective way to get better/less biased information is a  referendum.  I say “least effective” based not only on a dismal chain of failures (STV, HST/PST, Brexit, and so on) but because I see first-hand as an elected official how complex these issues are.  I get paid to spend long hours reading reports, sitting through presentations, talking to staff, and participating in debates.  And this is just to get the “elected officials view”, which a true subject matter experts regard as barely adequate.  I recall on the eve of the STV referendum that about a third of respondents did not even know what STV was.  Everyone recognized this knowledge gap, which is why we had a referendum redo (and another on the way). Might as well flip a coin until it comes up they way you want.

I have been experimenting with my own alternatives to referenda in the form of short, simple multi-round surveys.  A critical feature of this approach is that we only ask citizens about topics for which they have expertise, such as their own high-level preferences.  These surveys are not perfect (the majority still refuses to participate) but at least they provide a slightly less biased sense of what people are thinking.  The Area F official community plan review is an example of this approach, as is the roaming horse Delphi we ran a few years ago.

The second approach to side- stepping silent majority/vocal NIMBY mismatch is to transform a democratic decision into a market decision.  Specifically, governments can eliminate the winner-loser outcome by internalizing the externality that causes market failure in the first place.  We can use the Marron Valley compost site to illustrate this:

  1. Say there are 50 households that oppose the Marron Valley site because they believe it will adversely impact them.  The noise, smell, and/or loss of view are the negative economic externalities imposed by the siting decision on these residents.
  2. Assume that the cost savings from the Marron Valley site are $25 million more than the next-best alternative (multiple non-regional composting sites).
  3. It is possible—at least in theory—to make side-payments to the Marron Valley opponents so that everyone is happy.  Such a payoff scheme is rational from the community’s point of view (and hence the government’s point of view) as long as the payoffs to opponents sum to less than $25M.  The trick is to price the negative externalities in such a way that former opponents voluntarily accept the siting of the compost facility.  They value the cash as least as much as the adverse impacts from the facility.


The challenge, of course, is setting the price.  If the residents want too much compensation, it becomes cheaper to go with the second-best alternative.  Even so, this compensation approach has long been used by organizations without legitimate coercive power (e.g., non-governmental railway and utility companies) but is also being used by governments in Japan and Switzerland.  It might be an approach worth trying here given the relatively large amount of money at stake in the compost decision.


So all this is just a long justification for my repeated use of the word NIMBY as a shorthand to describe vocal opposition to an alternative being considered in a government decision.  The term is fairly well-established in the literature on public policy so I certainly don’t mean to denigrate anyone by calling them a NIMBY.

On the other hand, we cannot automatically assume that NIMBYism is anything other than naked self-interest working in opposition to broader public interest.  That is, NIMBYs do not necessarily have moral highground.  Yes, there are many historical examples of NIMBYism working in the long-run best interest of a community.  But this occurs only when the government’s decision-making process has ceased to be legitimately democratic.  When the democratic process functions well, NIMBYism is a barrier to effective democratic decision making.

I tend to assume, at least in the RDOS in 2018, that our decision processes are legitimately democratic.  We have no figure comparable to Robert Moses wandering our halls, for example.  I see no evidence in the RDOS of corruption, clientelism, gross incompetence or other sources of governance failure.  The RDOS is not a large, sophisticated operation, but we do employ smart people with good ideas who work diligently in the public interest.  This said, it is clear that—like all governments—we have difficulty hearing the voice of the silent majority and weighing their small gains against the larger losses of the minority.  This creates a certain amount of uncertainty about the best alternative and makes us reluctant to make the winner-loser decisions that are inevitable in a democracy.

The RDOS is thus at a crossroads.  We have a complex, potentially costly environmental problem on one hand and a reluctance to to take bold remedial action on the other.  My thinking, given the size of the stakes involved, that we might want to consider pricing the externality and making side payments to opponents.  This logic applies to Summerland, Marron Valley, or wherever.  There are problems with this approach, but the problems of inaction seem much larger.



* As virtually all countries have discovered—sometimes the hard way, there are certain domains in which the majority should not be able to impose its will on the minority.  A “Bill of Rights” or “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” spells out the limits placed on the democratic process.