When It Comes to Urban Development, More Folks Are Saying: “Yes, in My Backyard”

From NIMBY to YIMBY: What a difference a generation (and an urban housing shortage) makes.

February 23, 2017


One of my all-time favorite articles from the spot-on satirical publication The Onion ran under this brilliant headline: “Report: 98 Percent of Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others.”

The headline and the (forgivably) fake news story that followed captured perfectly the mentality that has often clouded progressive thought concerning smart growth initiatives. “Sure, we endorse increased public transportation, urban infill, and transit-oriented development. The future of our communities depends on these projects! Just don’t you dare break ground on any of them anywhere near my house.”

Very recently, however, such NIMBYism (which stands for “Not in my backyard”) has been met with a reactive, countervailing cultural force. In cities all across the country, people fed up with unaffordable housing, traffic congestion, long commutes, and the various social ills that result from poor urban planning have decided to do something about it. They call themselves YIMBYs, and they’re organizing and pressuring their elected officials to set up smart growth projects—especially multifamily dwellings—in, yes, their backyards (or at least nearby).

YIMBYs are shaking up the politics of urban development in American cities large and small: New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, to be sure, but also Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, and even Sitka, Alaska. They’re not always coming from the same place philosophically. Many of them cite skyrocketing rents and housing prices as their main issue; others emphasize the need for increased mass transit and mixed-use development centered on transit hubs. Some are fervent free-marketers; others are self-described anarchists. But what they all have in common is a core belief that development, in and of itself, isn't the enemy. And not only is it not the enemy, but—when done right—it’s something that everybody should want to see more of, even if it’s right outside their kitchen window.

The Plaza Apartments opened in January 2006 to provide green affordable housing in downtown San Francisco


Last June marked the moment when this fledgling movement achieved something like critical mass—when it convened in Boulder, Colorado, for the first-ever YIMBY conference. Attended by hundreds of people from all over North America (and from as far away as Australia), YIMBY 2016 brought these like-minded souls together and gave them an opportunity to share ideas, suggest solutions, and put a new face on urban development that’s far less corporate—and far more communitarian—than what we’re used to seeing. Whether they were railing against restrictive zoning laws that discourage urban infill or highlighting the links between poor urban planning and climate change, attendees and speakers were cognizant of the need to build consciously and sustainably. And also: immediately.

YIMBYs tend to skew millennial and to hail from economically flourishing, tech-heavy cities—where creating new jobs has often been a cinch, but providing enough housing for all those new workers has proved much more difficult. Just a generation ago, many of these same cities were the birthing grounds for antidevelopment NIMBYism, as coalitions formed between homeowners and preservationists who feared that an influx of new multifamily dwellings would lower property values and destroy the unique character of individual neighborhoods. (To be clear: This variant of NIMBYism, which focuses its ire on residential development, should be distinguished from the kind that opposes things like dumps or sewage treatment plants.)

An unintended consequence of NIMBYism, of course, was urban sprawl and all of the social and environmental problems that come with it. But studies have shown that job-seeking college graduates—especially those members of the “creative class” that so many cities are desperate to attract—don’t want to live on the outskirts of town. They prefer to live in dense, mixed-use environments with plenty of public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, and green space. The YIMBYs are the collective manifestation of a new reality that urban areas have no choice but to accept: If cities want to keep courting new talent, they’re going to have to give this generation and future generations the things they demand, starting with affordably priced homes in the urban core and more (and better) mass transit options―not just greater subway access, but things like faster, cleaner buses and more bike lanes.

YIMBYism is still very young. Between its newness and its members’ stated preference for organic, nonhierarchical structure, the movement doesn’t have a lot public-policy accomplishments to boast about yet (although Seattle’s YIMBY community has been credited with influencing the city’s decision to stop letting homeowner-led neighborhood councils—bastions of NIMBYism—advise the city in its growth and development plans).

What it does have on its side are momentum, ideological diversity, and plenty of grass-roots passion. In the words of the brand-new YIMBY Denver chapter, which held its very first public meeting this week: “Density is good, and affordable living is a right.”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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