In an earlier post I had discussed property rights and obligations that an owner acquires upon purchasing land. However, when they choose to develop land they can encounter some resistance from the local community as is evident in the Shaw-Nee Park development introduced in the initial post. Today I would like to look at some ways that reluctance to change often-encountered in communities can be minimized. I start with a discussion of why we plan and the role of planners over the last 50 years, then look at the reasons that may drive a communities reluctance to change, and conclude with some options for minimizing this reluctance.

To generalize, people in a community wish to improve their local environment and it is inevitable that places change. Communities have adopted plans that protect public views of important parts of their environment, and planning has been used to revitalize culture, to conserve the environment, to provide multiple transportation modes, etc. At the same time community members age, people come and go, new ideas change the way a community views itself, and impending or perhaps existing problems demand that communities revisit how they develop. So planning can be viewed as a dynamic process where increasing population and densities of human occupation force us to adapt our systems of land use given a finite land base, increasing knowledge of the impacts of land use, and the changing attitudes of both land users and regulators of land use. The one observed constant is the ever-intensifying and evolving conditions of land use by people. However, this desire to change has not always been widely accepted.

There exists a general belief that an individual has the right to be informed and consulted, and to express their views on matters that affect them personally. Consequently, citizen participation became widespread in the 1960s, as middle income North America demanded a more active role in environmental and neighbourhood decisions. New skills and new policies were developed so that planners became responsible to citizens through the creation of socially suitable neighbourhoods that incorporated citizen’s values. Design in the 1960s took on a form of community participation with the professional designer acting as an advocate for groups who ordinarily would not have had access to a design professional, or to the decision making process. However, since the 1974 oil crisis the planner’s role has shifted to a greater extent towards a bureaucratic role that is often constrained by budget limitations, and complicated by increased complexity of today’s planning issues. This has tended to result in a less well-informed citizenry, or perhaps a more disenfranchised citizenry, from which NIMBYism (not in my back yard) has emerged.

NIMBYism is the public opposition to unwanted local development and is commonly used to describe protectionist attitudes and oppositional tactics employed by community groups facing unwelcome change in their community. Such forms of collective action are founded in a groups attachment to place, i.e., its emotional connection to a familiar location, and the anxiety, sense of displacement, and perception of threat to place that results from demands for change.

While some research shows that if “fact” can be separated from “myth” then NIMBY responses can be reduced, others have shown that NIMBYs are often well informed of development risks and understand the need for particular developments, but are driven by issues of justice, equity, and trust. This perspective suggests that a less judgmental approach should be taken when engaging with public opposition that goes beyond the labeling of opponents as irrational, and a need to expect, rather than decry, emotional responses from local residents. The challenge then is to devise strategies and procedures that enhance rather than disrupt places. Development of processes that promote support rather than opposition, that manage conflicts when they arise, and that are mindful of the symbolic, emotional and evaluative aspects of place attachment and place identity. To do so can help address public opposition.

So the question becomes, what can we do to minimize NIMBY opposition? The best approaches start with effective communication, empowerment, consensus building, and greater understanding of differences between supporters and opposition of development and change.

More effective communication typically focuses on public education and technical rationality through the process of experts informing others about the “truth”. It is increasingly recognized that this approach is inadequate because it fails to consider the social context of risk. It is important to create an environment in which dialogue regarding potential risks can occur. Risk communication programs should point out not only technical risks, which may result in loss of property value, put also risks associated with loss of quality of life. In general, transparency of information is emphasized, because when communication is effective, it has the potential to increase public trust and the credibility of the developer, government, and citizen groups.

Empowerment of NIMBYs by giving them more control over proposed developments and potential impacts can promote trust and minimize opposition. One approach is to allow NIMBYs to use their own experts and develop programs to monitor risks themselves. Additionally, the use of community advisory boards can also minimize opposition.

Incorporating consensus building has frequently helped address NIMBY concerns and promotes interaction between stakeholders. Consensus based processes have the potential to reduce frustration, animosity, financial, and time costs associated with making decisions about development risks. Informal processes are preferred, as they tend to arrive at consensus earlier, and allow all stakeholders to discuss their perspectives. I also recommend that the public be asked what they think consultation should entail.

The development of institutional structures that promote consistency and certainty is also an effective means of reducing NIMBY responses. The failure of land use regulations to provide sufficient information to the public, developers, and decision makers about existing land uses, and consequences of land use change tends to increase NIMBY responses, particularly when one considers zonings contribution to environmental injustices. In a collaborative environment citizens can be viewed as experts relative to decisions about values, and traditional land development experts (planners, engineers, architects, economists, etc.) can focus on what they do best, provide input relative to technical issues.

Studying the differences in perceptions between supporters and opponents can provide valuable insights into the means to create more effective processes that account for variation in perceptions. It is also important to recognize that it might not be possible to address the distrust and uncertainty faced by opponents in NIMBY conflicts.

We must also be careful to ensure that information is provided in a meaningful manner so that information is not taken out of context, as this will be misleading, confusing, and lead to an “information haze” that fails to address the public’s concerns. When information presented is not meaningful, NIMBY responses tend to increase. Solutions or responses to citizens concerns should be reported in a manner that enables citizens to connect the scientific basis of the facts and findings with their perceived risks so that they are able to determine the social return of a particular development in addition to its economic and environmental benefit.


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