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NIMBY Stands For “not in my backyard,” a term used to describe the reaction people have to the possibility of a “locally unwanted land use” known as a LULU-being located in their communities. The term gained currency in the late 1970s and early 1990s.
Episodes like Love Canal and Times Beach created considerable fears that, if similarly unwanted uses for land were pursued in their communities, the community would suffer greatly. As the Christian Science Monitor noted in the first published reference to the term NIMBY:
People are now thoroughly alert to the dangers of hazardous chemical wastes. The very thought of having even a secure landfill anywhere near them is anathema to most Americans today. It’s an attitude referred to in the trade as NIMBY – “not in my backyard.”
This logic was then extended to any sort of facility that might lower property values, from factories, to airports, to group homes for the disabled.
The 1960s and 1970s saw remarkable social change. One of those changes was the greater likelihood that people would at least temporarily join together to fight against an undesirable change in the character of their communities. This sense of empowerment has been translated into much more active community participation in planning and zoning-but only when a community senses a threat. There is considerably less mobilization when an opportunity is presented to a community to build desirable land uses, like parks or other open space (indeed, some people consider these kinds of developments LULUs as well).
Thus, any LULU can be a “negative externality.” In economics, an externality is a benefit or a cost that accrues to nonparticipants in a transaction. For example, buyers and sellers of gasoline benefit, the buyer from having motor fuel available, the seller for being able to produce and sell the product profitably. However, a refinery in a residential neighborhood may also emit pollution, pose safety hazards, or just be too loud. The refinery therefore creates a negative externality, and the plant’s neighbors benefit from being able to buy gasoline at less than the neighbors’ cost-but pay the price of lower house values, impaired health, or the lessened enjoyment of their property-from the operation of the undesirable land use.
The challenge is in finding a way to fix the value of the externality to internalize the costs in the transaction and to compensate those suffering from the negative externality. It is often hard to find the right price to compensate people for having a prison, a factory, an airport, or a group home for disabled people located near their homes or businesses.
Another argument runs that people need to accept these facilities in their neighborhoods as other people do, as part of the costs involved in being part of a complex, interdependent society. The problem with this argument is that neither NIMBYism nor LULUs are evenly distributed. Usually, people of wealth and other means are able to successfully resist LULUs in their community, which then often are forced into lower income, often racially segregated communities. Indeed, this phenomenon is at the heart of the “environmental justice” movement, which seeks to more fairly locate or distribute LULUs so that poorer, less powerful people and neighborhoods do not disproportionately bear the costs of these facilities.
The terms NIMBY and LULU have spawned some colorful and often highly descriptive terms, such as BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything), NOPE (not on planet earth), and even YIMBY (yes in my backyard), a term that applies either to the positive benefit of a particular type of development in one’s “backyard” or the position taken by people who understand that the societal benefit of a LULU may be more important than the locally-felt costs.
- Denis J. Brion, Essential Industry and the NIMBY Phenomenon (Quorum Books, 1991);
- Don Coursey and Sangheon Kim, An Examination of Compensation Mechanisms to Solve the NIMBY Problem (University of Chicago, 1997);
- Herbert Inhaber, Slaying the NIMBY Dragon (Transaction Publishers, 1998);
- Emilie Travel Livezey, “Hazardous Waste,” The Christian Science Monitor (November 6, 1980);
- Gregory McAvoy, Controlling Technocracy: Citizen Rationality and the Nimby Syndrome (Georgetown University Press, 1999);
- Bryan Meadows, I.M.B.Y. (Not In My Back Yard) (Borealis Press, 2000);
- Barry George Rabe, Beyond Nimby: Hazardous Waste Siting in Canada and the United States (Brookings Institution, 1994).